The Proximity Principle

We are connected, in some ways, more than ever before. We have hundreds of friends on Facebook, and likely even more followers on Instagram and Twitter. We can chat and text and even Facetime and Skype with folks all over the world. I think that is a good thing. This is not the rant of an unhip middle- aged woman lamenting the days gone by and decrying the youngest generation’s inability to relate to people face to face.  I like technology and the ability it gives me to stay in touch with family and with friends from the places I once lived and with whom I still long to connect: The sharing of pictures of births and weddings and graduations and first teeth lost and dance recitals and baby’s first steps and … well, maybe not what you had for dinner, but that’s another blog. We are busy. We are mobile. We work across town; maybe even in another town. We worship across town; maybe even in another town. And we typically have friends in those places. We typically do not know, nor are we connected with, the people on our street – our neighbors. Yes, things have changed from the good ole days where everyone knew everyone and sat on their porches sipping ice tea while the children frolicked in the yards. I am neither suggesting nor expecting that we can or that we would even want to return to those days. But I am suggesting that the value and joy of knowing those in proximity to you is still relevant and possible. However, it will require a certain intentionality as distinct things present within our culture conspire against you: the lifestyle mentioned above, air conditioning,  attached garages with remote controls, and privacy fences.

Author Peter Lovenheim wrote his book, In the Neighborhood, The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, partially in response to a murder/suicide that occurred on his street in his upper-class suburban neighborhood. After some investigation, he wondered whether the tragedy would have occurred had the victim been more connected to her nearby neighbors, rather than waiting for the response to her panicky call to a friend many miles away. As he invites himself to sleepovers at his neighbors’ homes and interviews them, Lovenheim finds them to be interesting people equally disconnected from their immediate neighbors, and discovers as he suspected ways in which their lives would be richly enhanced on many levels by meeting and connecting with those living around them. In several cases, he assists in making those introductions and forging bonds among his neighbors.

There is no substitute for proximity. The writer of Proverbs says it this way, “… Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother far away.” No one else is as peculiarly placed to know the usual comings and goings of you and your family and to detect variations in that pattern. Someone nearby to care for a pet, borrow some sugar or a tool you can’t find after your kid worked on some project. Certain emergencies large and small are much easier aided by a neighbor. Lovenheim, in addition to the horrendous crime scene he links to this disconnectedness, tells the story of his immediate neighbor, an older gentleman who experienced a painful immobilizing back spasm in the wee hours of the morning and soiled himself during the long wait for a relative to arrive. How much simpler had he been able to call Lovenheim for that help.

I remember giving a talk to a local group of women, and one leader in that group chimed in with her corroborating evidence: It was the 4th of July and her husband was traveling out of the country. Her sons decided they were experienced enough to shoot off the traditional family fireworks in their home that is out of town a bit.  And they were. But it was dry and the ground caught fire and while their fireworks skills were fairly strong, their firefighting skills weren’t quite as developed. Were it not for the quick thinking and doing of their neighbors, it might have been a disaster. There was no time to wait for folks she felt closer to or more comfortable asking for help. Proximity.

At Connecting Caring Communities, we hear these stories often, and we happily share them. We believe in loving your neighbor nearby and in the value it adds to your life. One of our three strategies to build relationships that foster safe, caring, whole communities is our Neighbor to Neighbor Network. It is simply this: Commit to being intentional about meeting and connecting the neighbors on the block where you live. Take a walk. Smile at your neighbors. Ask them their names. Invite them to coffee. Have a cookout or a block party. You might not prevent a death, or a fire, or a robbery, but you might. And you will have a story to tell. And I hope you will share it with us. Right here.

Now, get off your electronic device and go meet a neighbor! I think I will join you.