Monday, September 13, 2010

In A Spirit of Neighborliness

In today's edition of Small Town Newspaper:

Lady Bird Johnson once said, “While the spirit of neighborliness was important on the frontier because neighbors were so few, it is even more important now because our neighbors are so many.” Decades later, I have harbored a general sense that despite her admonition, we have lost a spirit of neighborliness all together, regardless of our growing numbers.

I read articles about how we have become a nation plagued by loneliness, even within families, as we live more and more isolated from the larger group. We build houses on the biggest lots we can afford, designing them without the front porches that once made neighbors accessible to each other, and sealing them off with large garage doors that close out the world at the push of a button. We spend more and more time on the Internet or watching television and less and less time interacting with others.

I hear about increasing cases of road rage and listen to people complain about the loss of manners even from business owners who seem to have forgotten the customer is always right. We have become discourteous and self-absorbed, or so I had come to think. But now I’m wondering if I have been wrong in my generalization and have believed in and have perpetuated a myth.

The other day, I was talking to a friend who drives a school bus in and out of nearly every neighborhood, up and down our streets during early morning hours and then again in the afternoons. Let me tell you, bus drivers see everything. They see our kids at their best and at their worst. They see how we tend to our yards, whether or not we obey traffic laws and how much trash we take out to the street. And they see how we interact with each other.

This particular bus driver described a scene he witnesses every morning when he pulls up to a bus stop in town. At the corner is a mob of children ready for a day at school with lunches and backpacks, and a few mothers are tending them. These women aren’t just caring for their own children, though. They watch over all of them, wiping their noses and straightening their rumpled clothing, settling their disputes and keeping them safe. They wait with cups of coffee and make conversation, all the while standing guard and protecting the herd, so to speak.

The driver explained many of these mothers work full time but are free to supervise at the early-morning hour, and a few work night shifts and have just returned home in time to pitch in. They have full schedules with plenty to do, but in the spirit of neighborliness, they set aside time to care for each other’s children.

“Neighborliness is still out there,” my friend reassured at the end of his story telling. “You just have to look for it.” You have to get off the main road and peer down the side streets to see how people really live their daily lives when they think no one is watching. And you have to be open to shedding your false impression that we have become hopelessly selfish and uncaring.

I realize there are plenty of hateful people around who are rude or who refuse to wait in line or who blast their car stereos at full volume with no regard for the others stopped at the red light. There are neighbors who are stubbornly inconsiderate at the expense of everyone else and who prefer that we all mind our own business. But I am willing to believe we haven’t lost all hope. I am willing to believe the bus driver who attests to kind and generous acts being performed every day right where we live and hope they outnumber the unkind and selfish ones.

If my friend is wrong, and his story represents merely an isolated case of thoughtfulness, then we might just be doomed. But if he’s right, then I will gladly change my gloomy opinion of our prospects. I will gladly get off the main road and look for the best of our character. And for my own part, I’ll try to improve my personal demonstration of the “spirit of neighborliness.” How about you?

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