In my little book, The Seven Whispers, Spiritual Practice for Times like These, each “whisper” is an instruction that came to me over the course of several months.This is an exploration of one whisper: Love the folks in front of you.
Love the folks in front of you means to develop relationships with the people clustered around our lives: the folks in the apartment hallway, adjacent work cubicles, or up and down the street. We call this neighborliness, and I see it as the foundational building block of community, civility, and sometimes, survival.
Neighborliness is the recognition that we need each other, that we are interdependent, and that local good-will is the foundation for how we navigate where we live and work. Neighborliness is practice in friendliness. Neighborliness is built on little gestures that signal acknowledgement: to wave, to smile and say hello, to open doors and close gates, to compliment one another, to say please and thank you.
Though not always humming Mr. Rogers’ theme song, I often feel “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” Neighbors are a motley crew determined by who has bought or rented (or tented) next to one another. This happenstance insures that we will have opportunities to reckon with diversity, division, and difference. A friend who serves on her neighborhood’s HOA (homeowners’ association) board, has a placard on her desk that reads: “Neighbor is not a geographic term, it’s a moral obligation.” Seeing that, everything I believe about the necessity of “Love the folks in front of you,” snapped into focus.
I live at the island edge of the Seattle metropolitan area. My neighborhood has close friends, congenial acquaintances, folks who keep to themselves, folks who think everything should go their way. We have a range of differences and
judgment can burst forth unexpectedly. But here’s the essential question about neighborliness: if I see a need, do I move toward it or away? And here’s my answer: there is no one I would hesitate to help. And the other good news: I think every person in my neighborhood would choose to move toward helping. Mutuality survives our foibles and misunderstandings.
Writing this, I acknowledge it is privilege to live with assumptions of mutual aid. I am awash with grief over our societal disarray, the shouts and insults and prejudice, misuses of power, escalating violence. Families are mourning dead children, siblings, parents.
Carlton Winfrey, an African American journalist, writes in his column after the death of Tyre Nichols, “To convey to those not in my skin the trauma of having another Black man killed by police in America is too much.” He’s right, I cannot apprehend his pain, the pain of his race, his daily fear that neighborliness has completely broken down—now not only between the races, but within the Black community. Terror. Being beaten to death and not rendered aid. How can “Love the folks in front of you” have any meaning when tasers and fists override pleas for mercy?
We are all in trauma, though only some of us are bloodied. I wish with all my soul that I could even out the imbalances of race, caste, economy, supremacy and redistribute these things into a more just society. I am doing what I can with the size of life and influence I have been given. It’s not enough: it is something. And that is moral obligation: to exert ourselves, to look up, around, greet, pay attention, tend at whatever level of engagement and size our lives are. Maybe it’s a school classroom, or a wing in the nursing home. Be with the folks in front of you. Love anyway. Love anyway you can.