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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Restoring the Dinner Table

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sharing, listening, and breaking bread

Sarah Tarter

The dinner table, as a symbol of community, a place of gathering, and a locus for conversation, has the potential to be a place of deep healing. It can be a fruitful spring from which meaningful conversations, heartfelt belly laughs, and a deep sense of being cared for all swell up and consume us, leaving us feeling nourished, loved, and ready to enter back into our separate lives with a newfound sense of rejuvenation. However, at a time where so much discord and agitation exists in our political sphere, the dinner table has the potential to function as an eerie tombstone of lost possibility. Whether the only sound we hear is the clatter of silverware against porcelain plates, or whether there’s so much noise we can barely think, the dinner table these days seems more likely to leave us feeling empty or anxious than enlivened and renewed. 

In our mission to bring new life to the concept of civil discourse on our campus this year, my team and I thought about ways that we might be able to recreate this space so that it is once again a source of solidarity and connection. Although sitting around a table together may feel like a lost art for many of us and our peers (especially considering the blinking smartphone screens that beg for our attention beneath the table), we wanted to bring new life to this ancient gathering place.  And so, we introduced our very first “Civic Dinner” of the year, during which we invited eight of our peers to convene for an evening of meaningful conversation.

Our experience hosting a Civic Dinner for SCU students left us feeling surprised in the best sense of the word. Many of our guests did not know each other, and yet it seemed that so many of them were hungry for conversation, thirsting for a place to share and to be heard. While much of the success of the dinner may be due to the maturity and thoughtfulness of our company, it seems we have tapped into a vein that is coursing through the entirety of the student body. What I took away from listening to what my peers had to share is that despite our loving friends, our thought-provoking classes, and the beautiful roses that call to us from the Mission Gardens, our inner lives are still largely undernourished. We make small talk with our friends as we pass from Lucas to the library, promising to grab coffee soon and never following through. We wait patiently for someone else to answer the professor’s question, because although we think we know the answer, we are trapped by a fear of judgment. We wander the streets of Bellomy on Friday night, hugging every familiar person we see, but we walk out of some classes at the end of the quarter without having learned a single new name.  

We are here, in a space with endless possibilities for community, but we rarely seem to see how truly precious that is. If our guests at dinner are at all reflective of the whole student body, then it is true that many of are craving more from each other. We are longing for deep conversation, for robust dialogue, for compelling debate and loving affirmation. In some ways, I think simply holding a space where we make meaningful conversation a priority, and where we say that out loud, might be enough to make us feel comfortable opening up and sharing with others. But for this space to work in the way that we hope, we must set aside our phones, ask honest, open-ended questions, and truly hear each other. We must help each other feel safe by finding the courage to be vulnerable and sharing what is true to us. We must let down our guard a bit, and adopt a spirit of non-judgment. We must meet people exactly where they are. And maybe, for starters, we should meet them around the dinner table.

Dec 6, 2017

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