Recently, I was on an airplane for a two and a half hour flight. I had magazines, my Kindle, movies, and the plan of a nap to make the time go quickly. I found myself on the aisle seat, and to my left was a young man in his late 20s engaged in conversation with his work colleague on his other side. As the plane got to cruising altitude, the two gentlemen gradually ceased talking, tho I had picked up on some of their conversation. I mean, come on…it’s hard not to eavesdrop when you share an armrest.
As I had to get up to let the widow seat passenger out to use the restroom, the guy next to me noticed he’d read the book I was reading, and I got a chance to talk to the guy beside me. For a split second, I saw the situation from the outside: a suburban grandma in her 50s and a 28-year-old, well dressed, edgy young man. Why would he want to talk to me? I’m going to look nosy. He’s going to roll his inner eyes at me. Still, I asked him about their music conversation, and he was happy to tell me about their discussion. Not just that, but the bands he likes, his sister’s nursing school in Minnesota, the strength of character of his mom, the 80 pounds he lost (that was a surprise!) his first job failure and the existential crisis that caused before he righted himself and created the life he loves. In fact, before I knew it, the landing gear was lowering and we were home.
The plane ride ended with him promising to email me the list of books he recommended and referring to me as “His friend, Lori” to the colleague who woke up from napping. It turns out that Sam had moved to the Seattle area from Florida after college. And though we talk about it in church circles and in our community, he mentioned how real the Seattle Freeze is, and what a struggle it had been for him. About how hard it is to even make eye contact with the neighbors who live in his building. Apparently, there is not only a lack of available women per men in the dating scene, but there is also a lack of available community in which to enter. As I have pondered this in the few weeks since Sam and I met, it has caused me to wonder about why this is. What are we afraid of? In the end, I think we are both afraid of and proud of the wrong things.
First of all, we are afraid of intruding, right?? I mean, if I see my neighbor struggling with crutches to carry in her groceries, and then I offer to help her, might I seem nosy? Will she wonder why I was watching her? Will she think I am trying to sell her something? I think we are all afraid of being lonely, yet we are proud of not needing anyone. This is confusing, to say the least.
A couple of years ago we had a situation where the mail in our neighborhood kept getting stolen. I decided the solution would be to get one of those locking mailbox towers, so I called the post office to investigate. It turns out the neighbors must organize and pay for this themselves. Oh man, I would have to track down my neighbors, get money out of them and get them to agree to this. The neighbors I never talk to, and some of whom I’ve never even seen. And not just a couple of them, 15 of them! I only know a couple of my neighbors, so this was extremely daunting.
I started with leaving flyers on doors, asking them to contact me to let me know if they were interested. Knowing how much we avoid contact with someone we don’t know, I allowed them to respond by calling me, emailing, texting me or simply responding on the flyer and putting it on my porch in a box I left there for that reason. I mean, if they wanted, they could do this with zero conversation, or they could choose to engage.
I remember the situation with one woman in my neighborhood in particular. I was walking toward her house with a flyer as she was unloading her groceries. The look of terror as she realized I was coming toward her was almost funny. In fact, she was trying to hurry up and grab all of her groceries at once so she could close the garage door behind her. As I approached her, she started moving faster and faster. I finally had to call out that I wasn’t selling anything, but that I was her neighbor. The ironic thing is that once we relaxed and had a good discussion, she complained about the fact that they had lived in their home for eight years and didn’t know any of their neighbors; that this neighborhood was cold and kept to themselves. I wonder if she heard herself.
Yes, I think we’re afraid of intruding. We’re afraid of the messiness of others’ lives, and don’t want any more stress than we already have. We are afraid of people intruding into our lives, and judging the way we keep our lawns, kitchens, marriages, and children. It’s easier to avert your eyes when you pull up in the driveway at the same time as your neighbor. Best not to risk awkwardness.
But we also value the wrong things. We value the perceived strength there is in complete independence. I would rather drive myself to the emergency room than depend on someone else to do it for me. We incorrectly value extreme self-reliance. We confuse isolation for independence, coldness for strength invisibility for self-sufficiency, and drawn curtains for healthy boundaries. If I never see my neighbor, that means he’s rightly minding his own business and taking care of himself. We assume a manicured lawn and clean car are evidence of a healthy life. We’re taught early on to keep our eyes on our own paper. We admire that here.
Meanwhile, people are starving for attention without knowing how to get it. I don’t think we know how to engage with one another without trying to prove something at the same time. Who we are quickly becomes what we do, and people never get to know us beyond that. Still, Jesus called us to relationship, not small talk.
So here’s the thing, as Christians who care deeply about those around us as Jesus did, how do we overcome this over-independence? The days of neighborhood block parties and Tupperware parties are gone, and we really don’t know where we’re welcomed. Sometimes, all we have to do is look up. Look up to the person walking by, and acknowledge them. There are so many people who are lonely, who don’t feel ‘seen’. Simply seeing people and acknowledging them is something. Saying hello. Asking people how they are, and inviting them to talk about themselves. It turns out there is really no substitute or shortcut for listening. No formula for making people feel valued other than valuing them. No other way to make them feel cared about than caring about them.
Jesus was radical this way. He encountered people all the time who he invited into his community. And guess what? Not everyone accepted. He risked rejection, and he risked people judging him and questioning his motives. But he saw people, valued them and cared about them. And they felt it. In this day of valuing independence and self-sufficiency, it is radical to look up, see people, be there for them and to become approachable ourselves.
~Written by Lori Caperoon