The Best Social Connection of 2022: Your Neighbors
On Being, and Having, a Good Neighbor
“All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors — in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.” — Fred Rogers
As we begin 2022, we’ve all been reflecting back on the highs and lows of another destabilizing year.
One of the great efforts we made as a collective in 2021 was about recovering that which we, by necessity, had to sacrifice the year before: social connection. As we continue to rebuild this bridge, and patch the social fabric of our society, one unit strikes me as being especially essential: the neighbor.
In the summer of 2021, I unexpectedly had to spend a week and a half in the hospital. During that uncertain time, even more than my own health, I worried about my husband. He was handling a heavy workload, including a transition from a large company to private self-employment. Amidst all that, his wife was admitted to the hospital.
We have a dog. We have plants. We receive mail and packages. We run errands. As I lay in my hospital bed, wishing I could do the myriad everyday things that support our home and family, my husband ran himself ragged between work obligations and spending time at my bedside.
Fortunately, in due time, I made a full recovery. But during those 12 days in the hospital, a singular relief came in the form of our neighbor, Gaya.
She walked our dog multiple times a day. She picked up our mail and packages. She even generously dropped a few vegetables in our fridge, saving John a trip to the grocery store. Amidst the anxiety of being away from home and the fear of a medical emergency, I felt a great and glowing relief: everything would be OK at home.
With John spending most evenings with me well past visiting hours, I stopped worrying about things at home. We had someone. Someone who was there for us. A neighbor.
Being a bona-fide Millennial and a former New Yorker, neighbors never really meant much to me. I imagined, by not getting to know my neighbors, even sort of ignoring them, that I was letting people live their lives. Not getting too involved.
After all, we already lived in such close proximity; to get to know a neighbor almost seemed like an intrusion, an infringement on privacy.
That was my pre-pandemic ideology, before physical closeness and proximity took on a whole new meaning. As we emerge from the depths of the pandemic, I find myself appreciating neighbors more — not just for support during emergencies, but as rich, meaningful, and especially unique relationships.
In the early days of the pandemic, proximity to our neighbors became especially important. I live in Ventura County, California, in a suburb of L.A., outside of the densest population zones. Going for a walk with our dog in those days started to include a friendly wave to any number of neighbors also stretching their legs, from a safe, suburban-sized distance.
I never knew these people before; I hardly noticed them. But suddenly, we were all in this state of anxiety together, all afraid of proximity but naturally craving connection. Seeing other humans, in person, from 20 feet away or more, provided a distinct comfort: you’re still here. And so am I.
When it came to my medical emergency, Gaya’s proximity was exactly what helped. As useful as social media friends and followers can be under certain circumstances, in this situation someone that lived close to our home was critically helpful.
Also critical was that I didn’t feel badly that she was going too far out of her way to attend to our needs; we live all of a 90 second walk from one another (yes, I’ve timed it). Living in proximity to other people means being able help on short notice, and help in the unique ways that proximity matters.
Trust & Reliability
One of the dictionary definitions of neighbor is “any person in need of one’s help or kindness.” As in the biblical use: love thy neighbor as thyself.
Short of requesting a neighborly cup of sugar, Gaya and I shared a number of things over our first few years living next door: we took many dog walks together, and would trade dog sitting duties while traveling. Once in awhile, John would be called upon for handyman tasks around her condo.
By the time I found myself in the hospital, we already knew each other well and had established a rock-solid sense of trust and reliability. As I lay in my hospital bed, I realized that in the previous four and a half years, we had built something special that brought immeasurable relief to call upon in an emergency: trust, and reliability.
One of the things Gaya and I bonded over in our first few years of neighbor-ship was that all-important strain of idle chat: neighborhood gossip.
Crime, local business, public health, traffic, weather: it’s all fodder for getting to know your community. Gaya and I are both transplants to the Southern California suburb we live in — I’m originally from New York, and she immigrated from her native Sri Lanka. Sharing local news and gossip might sound trivial, but these kinds of stories and conversations help make place feel more like community, and community more like home.
Most of all, community is something that’s shared with neighbors. On important community topics, people can disagree, opinions can diverge, and tough stuff often arises; but living close to each other means finding ways to understand, and attempting to learn about differing views. In today’s world of social media takedowns, this kind of bridge-building has never seemed more important.
As we make our way through the latest of the pandemic, I’m reminded of Mister Rogers, whose words ring especially true at this unlikely and uncertain time. He said, “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors — in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”
Building trust, appreciating diversity, and fostering community are all part of the special relationship of being a neighbor. If anyone knew that, it was Mister Rogers; in 2021, I got to know that a little bit, too. My wish for all of us in 2022 is good neighbors. Being, and having.
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