On Hospitality and Unstructured Time

I’m a little late to this party, but Meredith Schultz has a good piece over at Fare Forward on hospitality for and among millennials. At the end she offers a few suggestions for habits and postures that will help with the practice of hospitality. I was particularly struck by her remarks on leaving some unstructured time in our schedules:

The accelerated pace of modern life means time is one of the most significant obstacles to practicing hospitality. “‘Being busy’ has become a status symbol,” says Henri Nouwen, “and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion.” If we fill every spare moment of our lives, we will not be free to welcome unexpected guests or have the energy to care for them. Leaving unstructured time in our schedules is a countercultural act, which faithfully anticipates divine encounters. A late-night conversation. Another plate at dinner. Three strangers by the Oaks of Mamre.

In my experience, this is especially hard for single people to do. One of my single friends at my church in England (whom I’ve mentioned before) and I once talked—“What! You do that too?!”—about our tendency to fill our calendars with social events, more than we really needed or wanted, because we knew if we didn’t, chances were we’d be spending the unfilled time alone. Living with family or roommates, you at least know other people will be physically present if you happen to have an evening or weekend free of planned events. But if you’re single and live alone, unstructured time often means time spent by yourself.

I have regularly received raised eyebrows or playfully critical comments when I’ve left the pub early or ducked out of one meeting only to head to another dinner party or other engagement. In the past, I know I’ve given the impression of never having a dull moment in my calendar. And that was (and is), in part, true. But it was often because I’d planned my days and weeks that way. I’d wanted to make sure I didn’t have to be alone if I didn’t want to be. It was a kind of measure of desperation, rather than an indication of my popularity.

More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the value of unstructured time for single people, too. Maintaining a packed social calendar can be a way of self-medicating, of avoiding the spiritual need for solitude and stillness. In the face of this pathology, leaving myself unstructured time can be a way of letting down my defenses and becoming better acquainted with my weaknesses, rather than constantly hiding them under frenetic socializing. And leaving unstructured time can also be a way of leaving space for others to take initiative in their own ways and invite me into their lives, without my having to engineer the engagements (and thus open myself to the uncomfortable feeling of always being the planner).

All these thoughts came to mind as I read Schultz’s essay, and I’d be interested to hear from others how the experience of “leaving unstructured time” looks different depending on your living situation and relational status.

8 thoughts on “On Hospitality and Unstructured Time

  1. While my wife and I were never at risk for over-booking social events, we are tempted to do so with children’s activities. We’ve felt that it is important, though, to build empty time into our family’s life so that our kids learn how to do so, too. They need to know how to be bored, to be flexible, to be around to be with and/or help our neighbors. It’s also allowed our friends to know that they can call/stop by and interrupt us since we are not always out doing something “important.” (Minnesotans are unusually polite when it comes to not even taking your time to ask if they can have some time)

  2. I wonder how many single people who fill their calendars with social engagements miss out on the encounters that would have been available to them otherwise. I wonder how many people who might have reached out to one of those people were deterred because of the illusion that that person already ‘had a life’. Great points Wesley.

  3. After having 18 roommates in 6 years, I decided when I moved to Indiana to live by myself for the first time. It was during those 2.5 years that I learned how to be still, to enjoy being alone, to allow for impromptu visitors and hangouts, to invite neighbors and people walking around the lake behind my apartment to my patio for tea and conversation.

    I learned that it was in the downtime that my friendships and relationships grew deeper than they would have if every moment had been filled with a different social event. Those two years taught me more about hospitality than any other time in my life. Now I am once again living in a house with other people, and although the community is wonderful, it is much different. I have found with roommates that there is a pressure of sorts to be around and available all the time, which is unfortunate. There is a joy that comes through solitude that cannot be gained any other way.

    This is a great topic! Thanks for sharing, Wesley.

  4. I’ve found that one of my biggest needs is for alone time, something I get far too little of. There are always things trying to insinuate themselves into my schedule, and, increasingly, I’ve been learning to say NO. This is why, to the consternation of some of my friends, that I refuse to carry a cell phone and often wish I dared to get rid of my land line. Solitude is precious and, for some of us, hard to come by.

  5. I recently moved to the downtown area of the mid-sized city I grew up in. Like many downtowns, it’s full of millenials and I now have most of my close friends within a 2 mile radius. There’s hardly a dull moment! We all live within walking distance so it’s not uncommon to just show up with cookies or “pick up” a friend on the way to an event or ice cream outing. I don’t think I’m afraid of solitude but after having a rommie for 5 years it feels strange coming to a quiet apartment. I get anxious. One of my goals this new year is to bring back some quiet time. I’m a total extrovert but I’ve usually been good at being alone and having quiet time.

    But for those of us to whom romantic relationships and marriage are not possible I honestly think the issue of alone time is a little more complicated. We’re going to have a lot more alone time available to us in our lives since we won’t have spouses and children. I consider this an important point because I’m already noticing that my paired up friends, and I’m at that age where there are a few marriages every year among my friends and their friends, get ‘raptured’ up in their relationship and become a lot more inaccessible.

  6. I agree that it can be a way of self-medicating and avoiding the weight of loneliness and anxiety about the future, for when I find myself alone, these always threaten to wash over me and I almost start to panic. In those moments I need to practice having a sound mind as I allow myself to feel those feelings in the safe presence of God, and not let them get too big. I also recall a post from a long time ago (Ron?) about singles needing to be strategic about planning for holidays and vacations so that from poor planning we find ourselves alone during significant times. So as always, it’s a balance, right?

  7. Three thoughts:
    1) I don’t like “unstructured time” because that tends to turn into “catch up on FB and read a bajillion articles you’ll forget in three days time.” This summer, I set aside a few afternoons to go on long drives and park out reading/praying by a lake. It was a way of making sure that my unstructured time was actually spent doing things I enjoy/value instead of just doing things that are easy.
    2) This is why I have roommates. I would be so depressed if I didn’t have roommates.
    3) Introduce yourself to the neighbors! In my old apartment, I befriended our downstairs neighbors who were four AWESOME MIT alums. We ended up having board game nights and murder mystery dinner parties with them. If I had an unstructured night, I knew I could go downstairs and chat with them a bit to avoid getting too lonely.

  8. As a single woman, I had some crazy experiences this past year which left me unable to plan as much as I had formerly. I did find, in the midst of that unstructured time, that things came up that I would not have been able to do before. It was a gift. It’s still hard for me to leave that time (because that doesn’t always happen, and I can feel despair and unhappiness in the midst of that) but I have found joy in doing so, and in being surprised by what God brings.

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