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 that 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:
1. Shift from Productivity to Presence
We have been taught to value and commend productivity. The people that we celebrate the most are typically the people that 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. 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. Tragically, our fixation on being productive has a way of impairing our ability to be fully present with the people around us.
We need to give ourselves permission to waste time with our neighbors. When we choose to be present — around dinner tables, on porches and in local parks — we create space for life-giving relationships to be deepened, for collaborative opportunities to arise, for creativity to be co-inspired, and for the cultural idol of productivity to be subverted. It is in these moments that we will become increasingly aware of how much we have to lose if we pursue productivity at the expense of a common life with our neighbors.
2. 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 word — 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.
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 that we don’t understand, those that we have distanced ourselves from, and those that we have looked down on. It is the space where 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 that 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, resource-sharing, and deep listening to be practiced and experienced. The act of hospitality helps us to identify, embrace, and celebrate the common humanity that we share with others.
3. 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 that they live in. Devoid of rootedness, we are quicker to settle for a vague familiarity with our neighbors.
While we love the idea of loving our neighbors, we struggle to create enough margin in our lives to truly know our neighbors well enough to love them and be loved by them. One of the ways that 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 that we tangibly share with our neighbors anymore; 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 in which we are invited to be a character. While becoming a better neighbor takes time, effort and sacrifice, we are in desperate need of the benefits that it brings.
Top photo via Kelsey Chance.
About the Author
When Steve MacDouell is not teaching history and professional communication at Fanshawe College, he's instigating place-based projects, hosting workshops, and inviting everyday citizens to leverage their time, their ideas, and their creativity for the sake of their neighbourhoods. He's the co-founder of Good City Co., a civic organization that creates projects, platforms, and activations to help citizens take greater ownership over the places that they call home.
He lives, dreams, and conspires in Woodfield—a neighbourhood in Central London, Ontario.