Tuesday June 26, 2007
This summer, I’m heading off to Bulgaria to work on my next novel. I’ve been very fortunate to be funded by the Arts Council England for my research on the book, which should take me first to Sofia where I’m doing some intensive language learning, and from there to the Rhodope mountains where my main character comes from. I won’t say too much about the novel at this stage, except that it involves a heady mix of guitar music, bandits and strange, popular saints.
For much of the time in Bulgaria (and in between, as I’m taking the train) I will be Couchsurfing. For those of you who don’t know about it, Couchsurfing is a web based global hospitality network. The idea is that you sign up, put up a bit of a profile, and then you can contact people all around the world and arrange to stay with them. It is all run on the basis of generosity and hospitality. In the past, I have enjoyed the hospitality of strangers – in villages in the Moluccas in Indonesia, in monasteries in India, in small desert towns in Pakistan, and I am always awed and humbled by the human capacity for trust, the way complete strangers have been willing to let me into their homes and into their lives. So one of the pleasures of Couchsurfing has been hosting visitors from across the world here in Birmingham.
Some friends have said to me that they think such hospitality – whether offering it or receiving it (and, with hospitality, I think that one is always both offering and receiving it at the same time, that there is a hospitality to being a host and there is a hospitality to being a guest) – is foolhardy. Isn’t it dangerous? they have asked. Well, no, not really. Of course, everything is a little dangerous. Eating crackers is a little dangerous (they can get stuck in your throat and cause you to choke…). But on the scale of things, Couchsurfing – which is extremely well run – is not much more dangerous than eating crackers. What seems odd to me is that people who wouldn’t feel uneasy with the idea of staying in, or even running, a bed and breakfast – essentially a private home where the hosts accept payment from guests – feel uneasy with Couchsurfing. Why on earth should this be?
I suspect it comes down to the fact that something like Couchsurfing goes against the tenor of our times, and the reason is simple: that we feel uneasy with a transaction based upon generosity, openness and hospitality. We are reassured when money changes hands, because we understand financial transactions; but when no money changes hands, our suspicions are aroused. We do not know what to do with such a situation. We are not accustomed to this kind of thing happening. It does not fit in with our world view.
But then, our world view can be a bleak one. The prevailing impression one can get from the media is that every stranger is out there to murder and maim, that trust is a mugs’ game; and this leads to an all-pervading siege mentality. Yet there could be no sadder house to live in, to my mind, than one surrounded by barbed wire, with large metal gates and an intercom at the end of the drive, the grounds bristling with security cameras and patrolled by fierce hounds. As David Edwards writes in his excellent book The Compassionate Revolution “generosity is dissent”. It is dissent against the fear and suspicion to which we are prey.
But what if somebody, one day, did abuse this trust? Well, it was Samuel Johnson who said that it is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.Yet, I would put it more strongly than this. It is a question of what kind of world we want to live in. Do we want to live in a world in which mistrust is paramount, in which every approach of every stranger is seen as something potentially dreadful? Or do we want to live in a world where we recognise that in the end the best thing we have to guard ourselves against the horrors that human beings sometimes commit is to cultivate that which goes against the grain of these horrors: to counter fear with generosity, mistrust with trust itself. And, in their contribution to this, those who dreamed up Couchsurfing, those who are continuing to develop the project, and those who are a part of this community of generosity are, I think, to be commended.
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