The role of our communities is changing. Once upon a time, the people we found ourselves surrounded by were our support system. Families, neighbors, acquaintances bound by proximity—we got to know these people just by the virtue of seeing their faces every day, saying hello, and occasionally hearing more than we wanted to know about their private lives. We learned names, and over time, histories that formed the fabric of our communities. Familiarity led to conversations on the streets, which sometimes led to shared meals within each other’s homes. We found ourselves inextricably bound to each other. In the process, we found ourselves inadvertently asking after each other and looking out for one another. These people became that inviting patch of front lawn that said welcome home, take off your shoes, and come stretch out in the sun with us while watching friendly faces pass us by.
These days, our communities seem to be made of ladders rather than grass. We gain connections through work in order to gain resources for self-improvement. We tolerate living with other people because there’s no helping it; we know they are beyond the fence or on the other side of the wall but don’t know their names. (Though some people go out of their way to avoid having neighbors at all.) Sadly, we no longer care to acknowledge the people beside us. Instead of getting to know those closest to us, we go on meticulous searches for the most impressive acquaintances and shun those near us who don’t meet our standards.
In some ways, the concept of the local community is becoming an endangered species. I remember spending time with the neighbor’s kids in my younger years, frolicking in the yard and doing our homework together after school. We didn’t share that many interests or even know each other all that well, but proximity and gentle encouragement from our parents was enough for us to enjoy each other’s company. When the fence separating our houses blew down during a storm, we took advantage of the gaping hole to play at the discovery of new and secret realms. These days, however, the same street is quiet, with only a couple of kids—two siblings—coming out to ride their bikes along the periphery of the block and mingling with no one but each other. Luckily, my parents still keep a watchful eye on the homes and driveways of neighbors who have shared the streets for twenty-plus years. They still chat with each other on the sidewalk to inquire about each other’s lives. But the newer neighbors are nameless, some even faceless. They are simply occupiers of nearby houses.
It’s not only the residents of our street that drift further apart. We’ve also left our local stores, hangouts, and services in decline. When we search the internet for the “best café” (or restaurant or shop or whatever we’re looking for), we don’t take the time to wander through our local streets to mingle with those who live and work next to us. Instead, we patronize a concept that exists far away from us. Even worse, we have become a world of the single-patronage model: we take our photos, write the review, and then move on to the next place. We aren’t interested in who people are and the stories they have to tell, we just want to know if what people are doing will make us shine in our best light. We’ve lost the ability to resonate with the people around us when it’s so easy to get responses such as real-time “likes” on our phones.
If we want to live with more of the “good stuff”, the cool and exciting and envious, we may be better served in nourishing what we have already. Oftentimes, the seeds of attraction are already sown in our communities. It’s up to us to notice that the seedlings are poking their heads above the ground, tentatively trying to survive in a harsh world. Each of our communities are filled with people with interesting stories, exciting ideas, or the means to build the amazing. Imagine what we could make if we all came together to make our dreams and visions reality. What if we focused our energies on supporting each other, even through the difficulties, instead of chasing after what already looks successful? Would we gain more pride in the people we surround ourselves with? Would we be happier with the lives we are leading?
Last weekend, I went out to lunch with my grandparents in Chinatown. I’ve always known that they are acquainted with a large percentage of the people in that tiny neighborhood, yet watching them move through the streets surprised me. I’d find them bantering cheerfully in an unexpected reunion with a family sitting a couple tables away. They had no qualms about wandering into a small and empty (and quite obviously struggling) grocer hidden from view—not to make a purchase, but to simply engage in small talk before wandering out again. The grocer and his wife had wide grins and laughter boomed around the store the whole time we were in there. Once outside again, my grandparents called out greetings as they passed someone on the street without slowing their pace. Once, they stopped in front of a run-down apartment building just so a friend could push two bags full of food into their arms, ignoring their protests. To most people, Chinatown is filled with suspicious storeowners, seniors who look beat down by life sitting behind dirty counters, selling cheap trinkets that very few people value. It’s more of a photo-op, like a theater set up with props for a show. Enjoy the spectacle for an hour or two, take the obligatory selfies, buy a couple of souvenirs, then check it off the bucket list. It’s a strange and kitschy place. But for my grandparents, this is their lifeline from their years of toiling to make a living. Everyone has their problems in life, but they put on smiling faces for each other and make the most of the companionship. Surely, this attitude towards enjoying life isn’t only for the older generation. Maybe it’s time to bring some of that perspective into my own life.