We customarily hold hands with guests before starting dinner. Not long ago, one of the stars of the Miami Dolphins held hands with his younger brother, also well-known for the sport, and with Ray. I held hands with the younger brother, and with a gay man to my left, who owns a local gay guesthouse. My gay friend held the hand of his spouse, who also held Ray’s hand. Holding hands and being quiet before a meal allows us to focus on the moment, with awareness of what we have, and of those not at our table who are hungry, lonely, and frightened.
When I finished sharing my thoughts about our bounty, the need for gratitude, and about those who have so much less, the football celebrity said, “If you had told me a year ago that I’d be sitting here with you guys, I would have told you that you were crazy.”
The next morning, in the produce section of the grocery store, I ran into one of our gay dinner guests who said, “If you had told me that we would love having a meal with two straight jocks, I would have told you that you were nuts. But we had a great, great time.”
“So did our neighbors,” I assured him.
There are lessons to be learned from the unexpected joy we experience in what we imagine will be awkward and uncomfortable situations. One lesson that I’ve learned is that we human beings have an amazing capacity to find common ground with those not in our comfort zone, that regardless of our age, we have the ability to learn from our new experiences, and that we take delight in our own growth.
Our gay, male friends, and our straight, football-playing, next-door neighbors ended up talking at dinner, mostly about movies and TV shows, but also about the best places to eat, and to have your car washed in Ft. Lauderdale. We also talked about the inherent challenges of being famous, about whether openly gay Michael Sam would feel comfortable in the Dolphin’s locker room, and of the funny stories that come from operating a gay, male, clothing-optional guesthouse. They made each other laugh, and they felt like friends for the time we sat together. All of them commented later that they had imagined a much different experience, and they were happy it was so much fun.
Another lesson that I take from this experience, and many others like it at our dinner table, is the awareness of how many people would love to join the circles of hand-holding that Ray and I, and many others, create. I’m not thinking here about just those who are starving, or who daily face horrific state or religion-sanctioned persecution because of their faith, sex, orientation, ethnicity, gender expression, or other factor. I’m thinking about all of the people who feel lonely, misunderstood, and powerless.
When I join hands with people in Ray’s and my home, I want them to feel safe and valued. Those feelings don’t come easily for many people. Part of the reason some people feel so isolated is that our fears of encountering them help isolate them. Because so many people are outside of our comfort zone, it becomes less likely that we’ll take their hand at the dinner table. I’m thinking of the person who is homeless, “deformed,” has been convicted of a crime, is dying, or is a prostitute or a cross-dresser, among others.
My experience is that when these people somehow get seated at the table, Ray and I get far more out of it than they do. The gift of holding the hand of someone who frightens you is that your mind and heart expand. It is no less a meaningful life experience than traveling to a foreign land, learning a new language, and tasting new food. Having someone scary “at your table” is all of that and more, because it is an experience in which you are not an observer, but rather a participant, a creator, and a game changer.
A few weeks after their first encounter, our straight neighbors and our gay friends were brought together again at our table. I noticed how easily conversations started as soon as they saw each other. Hands were held more readily. Laughter came more quickly. In my reflections on our bounty, the value of gratitude, and on those who feel alone and unwanted, I reminded them of the comments each made the last time about their shock and delight in meeting one other. They nodded, and then began debating which was the best of the movies inspired by Marvel comics.