“The most revolutionary thing you can do is get to know your neighbors.”
I’ve come to grips with a fundamental truth:
Our comfort zones are not as safe or beneficial as we’d like to imagine. While there is supreme value to be found in close-knit communities and friendships with deep roots, I have come to see how detrimental to self and society comfort zone living can actually be.
On the way to my children’s school is a sight that leaves me perplexed and saddened each time we pass it by. Without going into detail, it’s safe to say that an all-out political and cultural clash has been raging between two next door neighbors for quite some time. Both, from what I can tell, are as far from each other on the political spectrum as they could possibly be. Both wear their ideologies on their sleeves (or in this case, their front porches). Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched as exterior decorations on both houses have progressively become more elaborate, with most banners, flags, and placards facing not toward the street but the opposing house. From the outside looking in, it’s like both are in a contest to one-up the other and prove how loyal they are toward the causes which speak loudest to their hearts.
Each time I pass that war-zone, I wonder about the narrow patch of grass that serves as a median between both houses. Has it ever become a demilitarized zone, if only for a moment? Has it ever played host to a friendly conversation or barbecue? Somehow, I doubt it. Instead, I envision both houses as heavily-defended fortresses with names like Comfort Zone 1 and Comfort Zone 2. High upon their ramparts, no flags of truce are ever flown. Proudly hanging from their walls are torn and tattered flags; each rip, burn, and bullet-hole serves as a reminder of a war they have been fighting to no end. Each day I pass those houses, I wonder what would happen if those comfort zones were breached with a revolutionary act of love or kindness.
On the other side of town, across from my own house, lives a multi-generational family. There is a child, a mother, and a grandmother. All throughout the day, the grandmother can be seen outside on the porch; it’s there that she enjoys the peace and quiet of retirement. She’s never quite sure what the day will bring, but that doesn’t usually phase her. She’s always up for a smile, a wave, or a “Hello!” sent across the street to us and other neighbors. In fact, she is outside so often that she was the very first person to welcome us to the neighborhood when we moved in last March. Over the past few months, we have enjoyed the neighborly relationship that has formed between our two families with time, effort, and patience.
As far as we can tell, we don't really share too many similarities with the family across the street; but that is no excuse to cloister ourselves behind the walls of our own fortress, no matter how comfortable such neighboring would appear. Occasionally, we’ll cross the street to talk or to exchange food or other things. Back in June, my wife prepared a meal with them in mind. It was their first experience with Filipino food. Serving them brought as much joy to us as eating it did for them, I’d like to believe. There have been other times since then when food or snacks were given or exchanged. Each time it was unplanned and somewhat spur-of-the-moment. For myself, the desire is usually triggered when I see them outside while I’m carrying something in from the car. It’s then that I realize an opportunity for revolutionary love and kindness has presented itself. For that's what love and kindness really are: revolutionary ideas that drastically shift and change the landscapes where they land.
Last week, I ran home to bring my wife a drink from Starbucks. Right next to her drink, in the car cupholder, was my own untouched cup of coffee. As soon as I saw the retired matriarch of the house across the street sitting there on her porch, I knew a moment for revolutionary kindness had just presented itself. Carefully, I crossed the street, gave her the extra cup of coffee, and struck up a conversation that lasted a good five minutes or so. Toward the end of the conversation, I felt the walls of my comfort zone collapse and retreat, for the cry of “Revolution!” had suddenly reared its head. Denying it would do no good at all.
The words that came from my heart were honest, yet ones I never would have dared to utter a few months ago: “I just wanted you to know how much you mean to my family," I said while looking her straight in the eyes. "You were the first person to welcome us to the neighborhood and that has always meant something special to us.”
The look on her face was an absolute treasure. As soon as I saw it, I wondered why I had spent so many years building such enormous walls around my own comfort zone. “Thank you so much!” she joyfully replied. Her eyes sparkled; I understood the delight that hung from each word because I felt it, too. “You can come by and talk any time. I’m always here!”
Instantly, my thoughts were transported to the dueling houses near my kids’ school. I wondered what the landscape would look like if a moment such as this had ever taken place; if a truly revolutionary step of love or kindness had ever taken place before their battle lines had been drawn. What if a meal had been shared or a coffee given with no strings attached? I doubt it would take long for those walls, as high as they have been built throughout the years, to come crashing down in a thick cloud of dust. Still, I know how hard it is to take that first vulnerable step. I've done it and it was not easy. By instinct, we tell ourselves to hold fast; that the first to crumble and give in is also the weakest and the loser. Therefore, we hold out for as long as possible, digging trenches, raising towers, and defending our comfort zones for fear of losing ground to the enemy who is so unlike ourselves (but are they, really?). In time, the battle lines we form become so prominent that even outsiders see the marks they've left behind.
But revolutionary love and kindness also leave their marks. They've left their marks on nations, religions, cities, and people, too. They've left marks on me. I'm sure they've left marks on you. I can't help but believe these revolutionary ideas and actions called love and kindness can help shape, mold, and shift neighborhoods into communities we'd all rather live in. You know, ones without the need for so many comfort zones disguised as castles.
The morning was perfect. Mid-60s, or so, with a light, gentle breeze that left no tree untouched. Branches swayed; wind whipped through the windows of my car, almost stealing my hat and carrying it far away. I’m a big fan of mornings, and mornings such as these are my favorite sorts.
I came to a stop at the intersection of Creighton and Lafayette. Within moments, a nearby quacking noise filled my ears. It came from somewhere beyond the open passenger-side window I’d left open. I looked around, craning my neck ever-so-slightly. Soon enough, the culprit came in view: a little ways up in the grass, laying in the shadow of a towering group of trees, were a handful of geese. I have to admit, it was a somewhat amusing sight. There they were, just hanging out in the shade without a single care in the world. There were about ten of them lazing about, almost as if the entire family had gotten together in the final days of summer to enjoy their last day together before school started up again.
I was entranced. The light was still red, so silently I watched and waited. An instant before the light turned green, I had an epiphany. The ten or so geese were living out and experiencing a concept that is familiar to all of us, at least in name:
Isn’t it funny how — if you dare to slow down for just a moment or two — you can find things out in nature that teach invaluable lessons? That was exactly how I felt as I sat in my car watching the geese. At its core, it may have appeared like a random glimpse of animals being animals in the wild, but their behavior also painted a vibrant picture of that basic, yet equally complex word we call community.
I wasn’t ready when the light turned green but the person behind me clearly was. They gently tapped their horn; not in anger, but in that “Hey, buddy, wake up,” sort of way. Even still, I preferred the honking of the geese to the honking of the early morning car horn.
I hit the gas and continued on my way. My destination was a moving site for a family of four. I had never met the family but knew their names from church, so I jumped on the opportunity to volunteer when I heard about it. For the first part of the day we moved a lot of their boxes to a storage unit. In the evening, we moved the big stuff to their new house up in Auburn. It was exhausting work, but — as most volunteers will tell you — the joy received from helping a neighbor in need far outweighs the muscle pain you’ll surely feel the very next morning.
We called it a day around 8:30pm. The new house was cluttered and still a mess, but all of us were starving. Someone made a quick run for pizza and all of us gathered around the antique table we had transported up from Fort Wayne. Plates were passed around. I grabbed a cold water. I took my first bite, absolutely certain that I had never tasted such delicious pizza in all my days on earth.
Laughter filled their brand-new house. Jokes were told around the table. We shared stories from the day’s long move, including a couple of near mishaps that almost threatened to derail the whole thing. Standing near the kitchen sink, I observed it all with such joy and inner peace. It suddenly struck me: how amazing was it that I didn’t even know a single soul who filled that room nine hours before? Yet there we all were, laughing together, smiling together, recollecting together, and making memories together.
Instantly, I was transported back to the intersection of Creighton and Lafayette; of the geese that unknowingly painted a picture of what life is really all about:
I finished that first delicious slice, had another, and then another still. I was tired and ready for a shower but somehow hesitant to leave. I would be the only one heading back to Fort Wayne that night, therefore the only one missing out on all the memories yet to come. Still, I said goodnight and that I would see them all tomorrow morning for the last part of the move.
I headed out. The first segment of my journey led me straight into the sunset. It was a beautiful sunset that night; a breathtaking fire on the horizon, with orange, red, and purple hues all spread across the sky. And suddenly, just before I turned south on I-69, I saw a flock of birds — I’d like to think that they were geese — all coming in for a landing. I imagined them gathering around their favorite tree, noisily chattering about the day’s long flight, and finally tucking in for the night. I smiled and drove the rest of the way in silence, my thoughts all turned to life and what it’s really all about:
I hadn’t been sleeping well recently. For many nights I a row, I lay awake at night tossing and turning for what seemed like hours. It persisted each night until the 5:30am alarm went off and inevitably I was still awake. If you’re a human above the age of - oh, I don’t know- a few minutes old, you're probably familiar with the dreadful real-life monster that is insomnia. For some of us, such restlessness can be attributed to school-related anxiety. For others, hunger is to blame. Perhaps yours is caused by work or a strained relationship. For many years the bane of my nighttime existence was a toddler who would wake up every…single…night; and not just once, but two or even three times per night. Whatever the root, a night of unwelcome sleeplessness is never fun at all.
In the middle of my bedroom is a window with an air conditioner. Much to my chagrin, the hastily-installed unit has an inadequate tilt to it. The creators of the unit must have experienced this problem firsthand because they went out of their way to address the issue in the user manual. They did not address the issue once or even twice, but multiple times in the very same manual. Little did they know that I would be the one installing the cumbersome unit all by myself while dangling halfway out of a two-story window one scorching afternoon, so adequate tilt was not exactly a priority in the heat of the moment (pun intended?). Therefore, my only goal was to get the awkward install over and done with so the room would no longer be an uninhabitable furnace, but an igloo fit for penguins.
Fast forward a couple of months and I’m happy to inform you that the room is no longer suitable for a Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego reunion tour. Sadly, though, we swapped the fiery furnace for what seems to be a lively aquarium or, better yet, a wall-mounted monument to the whale that swallowed the prophet Jonah. For as soon as I laid my head down to sleep at night, an incessant bubbling sound reminiscent of an orca’s active blowhole decided to make its nightly appearance, all caused by the collection of condensation in the bottom of the air conditioning unit. You see, the reason you need a tilt on the thing is so the condensation drips out of the backside without forming any puddles within the unit itself. Otherwise, when the blowing air collides with the condensation puddles, you get a horribly annoying sound that would give the prophet Jonah nightmares for weeks on end.
There’s a reason people keep aquariums in their living rooms and NOT in their bedrooms. For hours I would toss and turn as dreams of sunbathing turtles and vacationing rainbow fish filled my head, wondering if it would be easier to just get out of bed and tilt the noisy thing or use a vacuum cleaner to suction the water out at 3:30 in the morning. Meanwhile, my sleep-deprived mind was filled with songs from the musical Hamilton (a recent pastime enjoyed by my daughter and I) and images from Be A Good Neighbor Week. All sorts of projects were there: garage painting, wheelchair ramps, yard work, roofing projects… eventually, a family of four would enter a dream, all joyfully painting a fire hydrant. Their entrance was always impeccably timed to a refrain of “raise a glass to the four of us; tomorrow there’ll be more of us,” while accompanied in time to the bubbling from Nemo’s aquarium.
And so it persisted night after night after night after night. Perhaps it would have been more annoying if it weren’t so oddly awe-inspiring. I mean, how could you not be inspired by a personalized rendition of Hamilton set to images of kids painting houses around the neighborhood?
Truth be told, Be A Good Neighbor Week had such a profound effect on me that it really did keep me up for nights on end. Although I didn’t have much of an opportunity to dig in and volunteer that week, I did spend each day running around from project site to project site in a hurried attempt to collect images and stories of volunteers and recipients in the middle of it all (you can view daily recaps on our YouTube channel here). Never in my forty-one years on earth did I imagine I’d be gifted with such an honor. Truly, it was a storyteller’s dream come true.
However, every good story seems to have a villain. Without one, where is the struggle? The villain, in this case, was the conflicting noise trying very hard to disrupt all positivity and hope in my sleep-deprived head. Maybe you felt it too that week: the constant anger and hatred on full display on social media; the countless friendships destroyed over face mask regulations; the chaos of differing political views in this heated election year. I tried my best to avoid the noise but part of my job is handling all social media accounts for NeighborLink, so avoidance was futile.
The stark contrast could be perfectly described with the title of a well-known Charles Dickens novel: A Tale of Two Cities. For on the one hand we had selfless concern for neighbors, all brilliantly portrayed in Be A Good Neighbor Week. The other side was quite the opposite: it was the dark side of the digital realm, those dangerous alleyways inhabited by Facebook, Twitter, and company. In my sleeplessness, I lay awake each night grieving that both must exist within the very same cities, townships, neighborhoods, streets, and sometimes even houses. Why did life have to be like this?
Laying awake, I wished that I could invite each person in the middle of an argument to a roofing project, or a fire hydrant painting, or a wheelchair ramp install… but then, as I rolled from side to side in a vain attempt to find that perfect position to lull me back to sleep, I realized that I very well could do just that. I can invite everyone to come along for the ride. I can invite them to view what it’s like to volunteer at NeighborLink. I can remind people of the most important ideals in life. And if all of those fail, I can simply choose to be an example by word, deed, action, and response.
I woke up last Thursday morning feeling something that I hadn't felt in quite a while: I had soundlessly slept through the entire night. The same was true on Friday and Saturday. Although I’m sure it had something to do with the disappearance of the mysterious bubbling sound, I’d also like to think it had something to do with the peace I’d found in choosing to do my part in making my city, township, neighborhood, street, and house a little better with each new day that's granted to me. It will take real, hard work but it certainly makes falling asleep to the tune of a Hamilton song much, much easier to cope with.