As we close up a month of focusing on global awareness and go into a time of focusing on thankfulness and gratefulness, I would like to bring us back to our everyday lives and put the spotlight on the people around us. I wrote a Soul Coffee earlier in October about how becoming globally aware involves first investing in and getting to know people around you - specifically, your neighbors.
For this article, I dive into a couple broad topics that I know contain many different factors, which I hope to unpack more in the future, but for this article I would like to focus on the importance of building up communities.
How often is it that people all over the United States and the developed world barely know their neighbors? It seems as though the structure and design of some of our neighborhoods make it so much harder to intersect and share lives with people right next to us. Many homes have garages attached to them that lead right into the house, which allows people to get from their car into their house with never taking a step outside. I’ve seen this played out again and again: the garage door opens, the car goes in, and the garage door closes, without even a glimpse of a person. As a result, we must be much more intentional than ever before.
I also question how cities and towns, specifically in the suburbs, are formed. The typical layout consists of an area for just houses, miles and miles of houses, with the nearest grocery store or restaurant being several miles away. What happened to the muliti-use areas that include some houses, stores, restaurants, and parks? Instead, these areas tend to lack creativity and uniqueness where only chain restaurants and stores are offered. What happened to the mom-and-pop store around the corner, and the local coffee shop where one could meet and talk with their neighbors? Within the suburb-type of structure there is often little to no safe pedestrian and bike routes offered. People nearly have to risk their lives to pick one of these modes of transportation. Without this infrastructure in place, many come to the realization that cars are necessary and within these cars we create another barrier to actually interacting with other people.
I do not intend to go off on a rant, these are things that have become cultural norms that I have questioned and see how they affect our abilities to connect with people around us. I personally believe it is good to take a step back and question things that have become our cultural norms. Whenever I do, l am surprised by all the things that don’t make a lot of sense. I bet you will too.
So, back to our topic, why is it important to connect and share life with people around us, including our neighbors?
As Americans, we often live very independent lives that can become very lonely. I believe this is not how we were intended to live. We are meant to live in community and to live life right alongside other people through the good, the bad, and the ugly.
This reminds me of the one thing I always hear from Americans who get to visit poor communities in many places around the world. These Americans are always astonished by the radiating joy they witness pouring out of the people in these poor communities. When asked about where this joy comes from, often times they explain that they are so thankful to be with their families and friends and to be able to experience life together. They continue to explain this sense of belonging they feel and how it is so satisfying. They don’t feel a need to compete with others, but feel a need to be with one another. They seem to see the beauty in each other that transcends their hardships.
Many Americans who come back from spending time in these communities are also amazed by the amount of laughing they experience and the contiguous fullness and joy they felt. It’s hard to believe that this comes from people who barely have enough food for one meal a day, who live in tiny huts that are packed full of people who are happy to make a couple dollars a day, and yet, these are the people who are known for radiating joy.
This brings me to question what we seem to be missing in our lives. I think as Americans we have much to learn. It is definitely an ironic paradox that we live in, where people who are considered the wealthiest in the world and have their every basic need met have this overwhelming feeling of loneliness and sadness. Until we realize that there is no amount of money, power, a ‘successful’ career, or any material possession including a bigger house or car that can make us any happier beyond short-term, then we are stuck chasing after things that will never satisfy.
The things in life that will truly bring us joy and a sense of fulfillment are found within our communities, families, schools, church communities, and ultimately in our willingness to give up our personal selfish pursuit of self-promotion in exchange for the pursuit of making us all better as a whole. In order to do this we have to be willing to give up our fears that come with vulnerability. To know that the more honest and authentic I am, the more it gives other people permission to do the same. In this, I believe we will find much needed fulfillment to our wanting to belong that has often felt like a deep empty hole in our hearts.
So, what would it look like to intentionally reach out to people around us, specifically our neighbors?
This question can only be answered by you. But I can share one of many great examples of how amazing things can be if a person steps out. One of my friend’s parents stepped out and invited all of their neighbors over for brunch one Saturday. To their pleasant surprise everyone from their neighborhood came and loved getting to know each other so much they decided to have brunch once a month rotating to each neighbor’s house. This has created such a wonderful, caring community within this neighborhood. If one family needs help, another family is right there ready to assist.
As November begins, think about ways that you can open up your life to others around you. Be creative and be ready to open your living rooms, your dining rooms, and ultimately your hearts to experience the true joy we long for that no amount of money can buy.
Stephanie Zeller is the Community Director for The Authenticity Project, you can contact Steph at TheAuthenticityProject@gmail.com