The View from a Drawbridge

The random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.

Commensalism

The View from a Drawbridge

I love stumbling upon a word I’ve never heard before, especially when it’s one that is apropos to our current reality. Commensalism is such a word. We all need to practice commensalism more often.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this word has been around since at least the late 14th century, and it means, basically, the act of eating at the same table. The mere thought of it makes me feel cozy. Some of my most delightful experiences in life have occurred while dining with someone.

The dictionary then expanded upon the definition. Once scientists got ahold of the word around 1870, it became slightly more complicated. At that point a commensal was, “one of two animals or plants which live together but neither at the expense of the other”.

But then if you look at modern medical dictionary definitions, it becomes “1. living on or within another organism, and deriving benefit without harming or benefiting the host individual. 2. a parasitic organism that causes no harm to the host.”’

It’s almost as if commensalism has become more selfish over time. That would be a shame. But I refuse to comply. I’ll stick with the “eating at the same table” definition.

Even if it has been around for centuries, this word couldn’t be more timely. Now, more than ever, we need all the benefits that humans derive from social dining. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more of a challenge.

Let’s start by focusing on families in all their many shapes, colors, and sizes. Families don’t sit down to a meal together as often as they used to. Few of us can say we live like the Waltons in this day and age. Our world is so fast-paced that it’s hard to coordinate these get togethers. Kids have a variety of extracurricular activities. Both parents are often working. Even when people do sit at the same table, they are often eating different things, and their noses are buried in their smart phones.

But according to this article, eating with your family gives you the opportunity to touch base and really talk about what’s going on. It promotes bonding, and causes children to feel more confident, because this communal act demonstrates that someone cares about them. Some studies show that eating together results in a healthier diet that includes fruits and vegetables, and it may also play a part in reducing obesity. There is also a strong link between family dinners and improved academic performance. In addition, the experience allows children to adopt the social skills that their parents are modeling at the table. People are also more apt to open up to one another when they can look down at their food when they need a break from looking each other in the eye.

But I would argue that dining with people, whether you are related to them or not, has a broader social impact. In a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, it is important that we remember how to talk to people who have different opinions than our own. It’s much harder to be rude to someone when you are face to face with them rather than interacting anonymously online.

The more people you dine with, the more you will learn. Everyone has a story. Everyone has unique insights and experiences. Dining with others reminds us all that there is more than one way to live.

I particularly enjoy dining with people from other countries. If you find the opportunity to do so when you travel, I guarantee that it will be one of the most memorable and satisfying elements of your trip. It’s really hard to hate a group once you have broken bread with some of its members. I still maintain that all Americans should be required to spend time in foreign countries. If we did, we wouldn’t have such an annoying sense of exceptionalism and such an overwhelming feeling of xenophobia.

You often hear that only 10 percent of Americans have passports, but according to this article, that hasn’t been true since 1994. Now that figure is 40 percent, and that’s largely due to the fact that after 9/11, we stopped being able to enter Canada and Mexico without passports. Millennials also have a great influence on this trend, because that generation would much rather put their money into experiences than things. I’m sure this pandemic has flattened the upward curve considerably, but now that so many people believe (rightly or wrongly) that the worst of COVID is over, they’re anxious to get out in the world and do things they haven’t been able to do in years. And the growth of social media has introduced more people to more places than ever before, so the travel bug is becoming a bit of a pandemic of its own.

I genuinely believe that Commensalism is the primary recipe for world peace. Diplomats shouldn’t face one another over stark expanses of an empty table. They should have meals together. Talking about food is a great ice breaker.

If Putin had ever made it a habit to sit down with Ukrainians, if only to compare and contrast Borscht recipes, I think he would have a much harder time ordering them to be shot in the head en masse. His isolation is the very bedrock of this heinous war.

Let’s all embrace commensalism. Only good things can come from it, and the world would become a much more pleasant place. It would be nice to get back to the belief that the majority of us are civilized, wouldn’t it?

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