How many of you know your neighbors? Are you friendly with them, and they with you? Do you have things in common? Have you actually thought about your neighbors, seen them or spent any time with them?
I grew up in the city where the majority of my friends lived with lots of neighbors. I was fortunate to have been raised in a townhouse in a condo complex, allowing for both family privacy and public social interactions with both town home and condo owners, so I had lots of friends to play with and lots of fun. We even had a small play-lot built in the back of the property where we could play pick-up basketball games or HORSE, or see who could fly off the swings and land the farthest in the sand, like Olympic jumpers.
But the place to be in our complex was the courtyard. I loved the courtyard! Surrounded by the town homes and condo building, the courtyard was (and still is) a giant, oval-shaped area where all town home owners and some condo owners had a patio facing the center. The courtyard was many things to us: it was our track where we would race around the perimeter for TV privileges and have water fights; it was our community gathering place, where many summer birthdays, holidays and milestones were celebrated and shared; and it was also the place my dad snuck me my first sip of beer at the ripe old age of 9 – or something. The versatility and potential was as limitless as my imagination, and I was blessed with an enormously active one.
In addition to accumulating my share of cuts and bruises there, I learned a lot in that courtyard, like how to rollerblade, how to ride my bike and how to play catch and pitch accurately, since the walkways were so narrow. When I got older, my dad taught me firsthand how to plant and take care of his flowers and herbs, maintain a clean patio and outdoor space, and clean and use the grill properly. When I was in college and home for the summer, the courtyard became legendary for my awesomely fun outdoor barbecues. The memories there are so vivid, as if they happened just the other day.
But the most valuable lesson I learned there was how to be a good neighbor. For instance, whenever the ball would sail onto another patio while playing catch, we were all taught to quietly and carefully retrieve the ball but remember to shout, “SORRY, (so-and-so)!!” even if they weren’t home. If we disturbed anything we would carefully put it back in its place. Fortunately, we never broke any windows, but plenty of plants were uprooted and patio furniture overturned. It was in these situations when my mother and father saw the opportunity to teach me how to be a good person by being a good neighbor, and I never forgot it.
I heard a story earlier this week from one of my old bartending acquaintances that really illustrates the power of the human connection and our effect on others, even when we don’t even know we are exerting any influence, like ripples in a pond.
He told me he spent an hour talking to someone he did not know well. The man seemed depressed and he just wanted to put a smile on his face. Months later, this man sent him a card to thank him for listening. He said the act of giving him a bit of his time stopped him from committing suicide, that he was planning on going home and doing something horrible to himself. In that hour that they spoke, had he not asked him how he was, a warm and gentle soul would have been erased from the earth.
After hearing that story, I thought a lot about what it means to be a good neighbor. Clearly, my bartending buddy had no pre-established connection or an ulterior motive - he wasn’t out to “fix the world” or change people. He just saw someone in need and reacted and responded.
They didn’t live close together or even know each other like you typically think of when you think of neighbors, but if you look carefully at the dictionary definition of neighbor – the one taken from the biblical interpretation – it says, “any person in need of one’s help or kindness.” That’s exactly what my friend saw in this situation and reacted in a way that is so admirable and sensitive.
In a world that grows increasingly inward and isolated from others, acts of kindness like this should be exalted and celebrated. As a Jew I have known since I was a little boy that treating others with kindness and respect will serve me well into my adulthood. If only more people made an effort to be a good neighbor, imagine the good that could be spread and the positive vibes that could be shared. It’s paying it forward, enhancing someone else’s life for the better. To that end I am immensely proud of my friend for what he did and the courage it took to reach out to a stranger, become his neighbor and leave such a lasting impact.
Other than wanting to share that story, the reason I am writing about this now is because my wife and I are making the brave move to the suburbs. In a few short days we will be living in a single family home with a yard and – you guessed it – neighbors. Ever since we started looking I haven’t stopped thinking about what it would be like and how living in this new neighborhood with new neighbors will bring new and exciting opportunities for my family. I’m actually looking forward to being a neighbor and having the opportunities to pay it forward and establish the same atmosphere that my parents worked so hard to create for me. I have great neighbors now that my wife and I will miss, but they will still be our friends.
You know the State Farm jingle, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there,” but just this once, put yourself in it and see what it’s like to be on the giving end. You might be surprised with the experience.