It's what's for dinner: On the power of gathering together



I grew up in a house with a big, beautiful dining room. It had a large formal table, lots of windows, and a built-in china cabinet. But for some reason, we never ate there. Over the years, my mom's houseplants took over the table, and the cabinet filled up with dusty photo albums and craft supplies.

Instead, we ate our meals in the kitchen, where we crammed together around a linoleum table that barely fit the six of us. I spent half my childhood there.

That's where my dad gave us those awful crew cuts. That's where we played Monopoly or gin rummy on Saturday nights. That's where I did my homework after the dishes were cleared. And every night, that's where we sat down for dinner.

The foods we ate varied wildly – from traditional Chinese dishes of various animal parts, to pale, amorphous casseroles, lifted from soup can recipes and magazine ads. But in most ways, every dinner was more or less the same.

Although no one planned it that way, each of us had a designated place. My mom had her end of the table, and my dad had his. My little brothers had the side under the upper cabinets, because they could stand up there without whacking their heads. My big brother and I had the other.

There wasn't much conversation. With four growing boys at the table, and one big platter of food in the middle, most of the sounds were clanking forks and gnashing teeth as we raced toward a second helping before it was all gone.

And I don't remember my parents asking us how our days had gone. They weren't all that interested in micromanaging our lives.

As parents, we worry all the time about what our kids are doing, but we sometimes forget to consider what they're not doing. And one thing they (and we) aren't doing nearly enough is sitting in circles.

As long as we weren't obviously screwing up, they figured no news was good news, and they were happy to let us navigate the shifting tides of childhood on our own.

But despite the lack of ritual and conversation, those dinners were when we were most together. The six of us around that table is the image of my family that sticks with me, and that fills me with the most nostalgia and warmth.

Someone once told me that only a few activities are clearly associated with lasting happiness. They are, in no particular order, singing, camping, and dinner with friends. So lately, I've been trying to do more of those things. And guess what? It really works.

But why? What makes those activities so special? What do they have in common? For one thing, people usually do them with others. They come together with a small group of people they care about and trust. And whether it's around a piano, or a campfire, or a kitchen table, they often gather in circles.

Something strange happens when a handful of human beings form a circle. Something clicks into place. We become a whole much greater than its parts. This is how humans have gathered for millennia – since our ancestors huddled together in caves around a cooking fire. It's hard-wired into us.

But nowadays, we don't sit in many circles anymore. We pass our time in offices and cubicles, staring at computer screens. Our children spend the day in rows of desks, or sit around texting, with their headphones on and their iPods turned up loud.

As parents, we worry all the time about what our kids are doing, but we sometimes forget to consider what they're not doing. And one thing they (and we) aren't doing nearly enough is sitting in circles.

You don't have to make a big deal about it. Just sit down and eat. Put away the cellphones and the iPods and the rest of the outside world. Make a circle, then do it the next day, and the next, and the one after that.

There are a lot of ways to change this. You can start a family game night. You can tell stories and toast marshmallows around a campfire. You can seek out sports teams and clubs where circling up is part of the culture. But the one circle you can have almost every day is the one around your dinner table.

You don't have to make a big deal about it. Just sit down and eat. Put away the cellphones and the iPods and the rest of the outside world. Make a circle, then do it the next day, and the next, and the one after that.

Little by little, your kids will discover what it feels like to be a piece of a greater whole – what it feels like to belong.

This world can be a lonely place. Someday, our kids may wake up with a feeling that something's missing in their lives. They may sift through their memories, searching for whatever it is they lost. Hopefully, they'll think of a time when they always had a place at the table, at the end of every day.

And maybe, just maybe, they'll build a circle of their own.


Editor's note: This article was originally published in November of 2012.