BLOG— The power of neighbors
- Published: July 19, 2016
Our next-door neighbor is ill. A neighbor from across the street and a former neighbor walk her dog each day. Another neighbor from down the block cuts her grass. Several of us check in, help with groceries. There’s a lot our ill neighbor still has to handle on her own — medical bureaucracy, terrible pain. But in a few small yet crucial ways, she can rely on the help of people she lives among — all of us, her neighbors.
What’s a neighbor? Someone you live near. Someone you’ve likely not chosen to live near, but do. Your neighbor may grow to be your best friend. But most neighbor relationships are probably less soul-close than proximity-practical: I’m here for you because I’m here, because real estate has brought us together.
I sense something precious and radical in this. Neighbors are anomalous in a culture given over to choice, to choosing. And that, I believe, is precisely their worth.
Americans talk a lot about communities of choice, families of choice. I talk that way, too. There’s value — relief, satisfaction, sometimes actual safety — in finding your tribe, of course. People move to Yellow Springs for just this reason! Several people I’ve interviewed over the past months have described the village as an “intentional community.” That seems accurate to me. We’re a community of people who’ve chosen this place, and thus, in a sense, chosen each other.
But there’s also value in not choosing — value in dealing with the situations and people that surround us, rather than seeking out new and presumably more compatible situations and people. There’s wisdom in accepting what’s given, and working with that. In my experience, such acceptance is a far more difficult, and daily, form of choosing. And neighbors can help with this.
Rather than choosing to change our circumstances — the American imperative, the American drug — we can choose to deal with them. (It goes without saying, I hope, that some circumstances do need to be changed — ended, fled, thrown over. Which is which? Only discernment can tell us.) What does “dealing with” entail? Probably some element of doing what we don’t really feel like doing: the ostensibly annoying, the boring, the repetitive. Some element of putting up with minor inconvenience and frustration. Some element of listening when we feel like talking (or feel like just walking away), humoring or encouraging when we feel like criticizing.
“Dealing with” demands that we make a hundred hard little choices, and wake up the next day and make a hundred more. Not the one grand gesture of capital-C Choice that puts all irritations and arbitrary limitations outside the charmed circle of our lives.
How do I know? Because I’ve tried capital-C Choice, and it doesn’t work. Maybe you’ve discovered this, too. Change your circumstances and change your life? I’m not sure it’s our lives that require changing — so much as ourselves. (Wherever you go, there you are, as the bumper stickers and wisdom literature say.) And that can be done anywhere. Or more precisely, it can only be done here — wherever we are at this moment, and this moment, and this.
Which brings me back to neighbors. They’re here. We didn’t choose them, not down to the details of their pets, their quirks, their questionable lawn care practices. They didn’t choose us, with our propensity for late-night laughter (or fights) and our music of the wrong sort turned up a little too loud. How can we live with them? How can they live with us? These are questions that can only be answered in the daily work of “living with.” And the answer that emerges, I think, ends up being a subtler question: How can we live with ourselves?
As I’m mulling these words, my next-door neighbor’s car pulls out from the front of her house. Her dog is in the back. But she’s not the one in the vehicle. Another neighbor, a longtime resident from across the street, is taking the dog out for a morning romp. This may not be just what the neighbor wants to do at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. She didn’t choose it. But she chose it nonetheless. As neighbors do.