Setting the Table for People (Not Predators)

It’s the middle of your busy week, and you probably devoured your breakfast biscuit (doughnut?) and liquid stimulant only a short while ago. As your hasty meal stirs fitfully within you, looking for rest and finding none, I hope to lighten the burden of your indigestion (and lift your thoughts) with a few paragraphs on eating.

What could be more basic? There are few activities we engage in more often. That might be why we are prone to overlook its significance.

If we were made for anything, we were made for eating. Food is central to the existence of every living thing on the planet. Without it, eventually, our bodies die. In order to make available to the body the energy to do almost anything, we have to take in food. In recent years, we have gotten very intelligent and terribly sophisticated about this need.

In the modern world, we do not merely eat; we absorb nutrients (or harbor fats and sugars); we count calories; we combat bad gut bacteria and promote the good with probiotics; we self-treat with vitamin and herb intake; we avoid GMOs and pesticide-laden items; we hunt down mysterious substances like antioxidants and flavonoids, and appropriate these invisible helpers for our own body chemistry.

In other words, we are extraordinarily self-conscious about what we are eating (chemically speaking), even if we’re eating junk, and we think of eating as a necessary mechanical process for the ongoing operation of the human machine. Because it is this ‘ongoing operation’ we perceive as the ultimate end, and that operation grows continually more packed and busy, the process of eating itself is pushed to the margins. We find ourselves eating alone more and more often, in the manner of a routine machine, and we’re sometimes eating alone even when we are eating with others.

A predatory animal likewise spends most of its time in food acquisition and is often alone. When it makes the kill, it guards the carcass vigilantly and eats rapidly. But we were not made for lives like that.

Unteching the Table

How do I know we were made to work differently from panthers, lions, and their companions? Because our lives show it. When our eating habits are stripped of ceremony and fellowship, strained relations result. In the last couple of decades, various studies have shown an interesting inverse relationship (for example) between the amount of meals eaten together as a family and the likelihood of divorce. More meals as a family, stronger marriage. Chew on that for a minute.

In American tradition, as in many other places in the world, meals together around the table used to be the norm. As we have become busier and more mobile, and our lives and imaginations have been swallowed up in the media torrent around us, we find ourselves eating more often on the run, eating more junk, eating faster, and eating merely to make the hunger go away.

What we are ignoring (at our peril) is that, as humans, we hunger for more than the physical substance of Polish sausage and sauerkraut at mealtime. When the practice of eating begins to separate us – into different rooms or different vehicles – we begin to lose something fundamental to personhood, and we feel that loss even when we cannot name it.

People – all of us – were made for communion. Something intangible is gained from the relational sharing that occurs (or should occur) when gathered around the table, even if those who are with us are not our family, and that intangible something is felt to be missing when we are scarfing down a bowl of nondescript flakes alone in front of the tube.

The fact that some of us as a culture have almost lost the skills required for this habit is shown at our traditional holiday get-togethers (which often feature a dreaded family meal), famously ‘lampooned’ in the iconic Chevy Chase movie. We are not accustomed to, nor do we look forward to, that sort of sharing. On the contrary, we long for the return to comfortable (controlled) isolation. What we must realize is that we are out of balance; it is the isolation that is inhumane.

What can we do, once we have discovered that we have a problem, to pursue the recovery of a human way of eating?

  • Make eating with others (family if you’ve got one) a priority. If you don’t have a habit like this, start out with one meal a day together as a goal. Be specific about what that means – everyone seated together, no one leaves (if practicable) until everyone is finished, etc. If you live alone, look for opportunities to have guests; even bag lunches at work can be an occasion for this sort of communal eating. (Share this post with your lonely colleagues.)
  • If you are the family’s cook, look for meals that invite sharing and savoring. Meals that require everyone to use common ‘supplies’ in the middle of the table, and are thus resistant to being ‘wolfed down’ (note where that imagery comes from), will aid in preserving the atmosphere of fellowship and unhurriedness. This leads to the next idea:
  • Don’t rush through this meal – and of course, don’t hurry others at the table either. That’s the practice you are trying to resist. It is the ideology of fast food, and like the giant grease burger representative of that family of edibles, it kills.
  • Assume that you are at the table to help everyone else enjoy the experience. You are not there primarily for your body’s physical need, though you certainly will eat. You are there to make sure that everyone has what they need and that everyone’s voice is heard at the table. Serve. Ask good questions. Compliment (especially the cook!). Be thankful.
  • Share the clean-up responsibilities. Cleaning up after a good-sized meal looks daunting, but it takes little time if everyone at the table (or a good number, if you’ve just fed thirty or more) chips in. Children are perfectly capable in this area, and will usually be glad to help when they feel like a part of the family (rather than the slaves of the family).

If you’re out of the habit, it will take time before some of these things seem to come naturally. But the rewards are worth the effort. Don’t give up after the first awkward attempt (or the second or the fifteenth). Traditions need time, frequent watering, and lots of sunshine to take root, and good traditions are worth the necessary sacrifice. All good habits are easier to lose than to establish, so don’t quit on this one, for your family’s sake.

Eating is both common and sacred. If you want to set the table for those around you recognizing that they are people and not predators, you will take the time to think through the details and firmly set priorities. As in so many other areas we’ve already touched on in recent posts, the benefits of this practice are life-giving and are not attainable in any other way. Don’t lose hope – start small, one meal at a time. And don’t rush. Bon appetit!

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.

What are some other ways we can encourage communal, deliberate eating habits? How can we make space for this in our busy lives? Let us know what you think in the comments.