In many ways, neighboring has become a lost art form. From the juggling act of maintaining our busy schedules to the anxiety around relating to those who we see as different than us, the practice of neighboring can quickly slip to the bottom of our priorities list. If there is a solution to the social isolation, the political polarization and the superficial relationships that exist in our neighborhoods—and in the world as a whole—I’m convinced that it is reclaiming the art of neighboring. For those of us who want to be more committed to neighboring, here are three shifts to consider:
A Shift from Productivity to Presence
We have been taught to value and commend productivity. The people we celebrate the most are typically the people we see as the most productive—or at least the busiest. When someone asks us how we are doing, we are quick to assure them that we are terribly busy. We struggle to separate our work from our social and familial lives—largely because we can access our work at any given moment. We design productivity apps that help us eliminate work duplication and disorganization even though, when we open our phones to use them, we inevitably end up using other apps that are less than productive.
I think that, in some sense, we feel convicted about free time; we have a nagging feeling that we should be doing something to build our career, our capital, our status, or our future.
Our fixation with being productive can have a way of impairing our ability to be fully present with the people around us. Productivity becomes one of the primary excuses for disengaging with the people and the places that we dwell among. While we tell others that we are chronically busy, more times than not we are busy with things that do not add to the meaning, purpose and connection that we long for—and need—in life.
In creating space for our neighbors, we subvert the cultural idol of productivity. When we are present with our neighbors—around dinner tables, on porches and in local parks—we open up space for life-giving relationships to be deepened, for collaborative opportunities to arise and for creativity to be co-inspired. Here are four indicators that you are moving beyond superficial connection in the context of your neighborhood:
You have shared your longings, hopes, struggles and fears with your neighbors, and they have reciprocated.
Your neighbors are around your table, and you are around theirs.
You have been inconvenienced by your neighbors, and you have inconvenienced them.
You have co-created and shared something of value with your neighbors.
When we commit ourselves to being present with our neighbors, we will discover our shared humanity, and we will become increasingly aware of how much we have to lose if we pursue productivity at the expense of a common life with the people around us.
A Shift from Abstract Inclusivity to Robust Hospitality
It is in the context of our neighborhoods that we discover how truly polarized and disconnected we are from those that we deem as different than us. The truth is that it’s easy to be inclusive in words—on our social media platforms and in our lofty ideological language; in contrast, it’s incredibly difficult to wade into the complexity of relating to one another in the context of our neighborhoods.
We can say that we are welcoming of our neighbors without ever opening up our lives, our homes, our resources and our time to the diverse range of people who make up our neighborhoods.
While inclusivity can end up being abstract and intangible, hospitality demands our very presence with others; it invites us to sit across tables from those we don’t understand, those we have distanced ourselves from and those we have looked down on. It is the space where enemies—or those we saw as enemies—are humanized through proximity. While it’s easy to demonize someone from a distance, it’s a much more difficult task to demonize the person you have to pass the potatoes to.
Polarization occurs when the practice of hospitality is neglected. When we extend hospitality, we create space for reconciliation, enemy-love and deep listening to be practiced and experienced; this is good news for our families, our faith communities, and our neighborhoods.
A Shift from Vague Familiarity to Shared Lives
In the context of my city, it is not uncommon to see people spend most of their time working, playing, shopping and socializing outside of the neighborhoods they live in. Our lives are increasingly fragmented; in many ways, we have lost a sense of rootedness. Devoid of rootedness, we are quicker to settle for a vague familiarity with our neighbors.
Even if we desired a deeper level of connection with our neighbors, we fear the awkwardness—and potential rejection—that comes with sticking our necks out for it. At the end of the day, we don’t want our neighbors to think that we need anything from them, and we certainly don’t want them to need anything from us.
We love the idea of loving our neighbors as ourselves, yet we struggle with creating enough margin in our lives to truly know our neighbors well enough to love them and be loved by them. One of the ways we can move beyond a vague familiarity toward a more shared life with our neighbors is through collaboration. What I am continuously encountering in my neighbors is the longing to co-invest in something meaningful. From book clubs and street parties to localized advocacy and film nights, community formation often happens through collaboration.
Neighborhood-centric collaboration makes sense because the neighborhood is one of the few things we tangibly share with our neighbors; it is the common source material that will inspire creativity in the context of our place. As we listen to the needs and hopes of our neighborhoods, we will be given the opportunity to get our hands dirty in the task of working together for the common good.
When we are present, hospitable and open to deeper relationships, we will discover the story that is unfolding in our neighborhoods—a story that we are invited to be a character in. While becoming a better neighbor takes time, effort and sacrifice, we are in desperate need of the benefits that it brings.