How Can I Get to Know My Neighbors? Answer: Walk!
There is one thing that I started doing during the pandemic that I still do, even as life starts to look more like our pre-COVID world. Usually, my time outside of work is full of meeting up with friends, church, and other social activities. With the disappearance of so many of my weekly rhythms, I began to take daily walks after work. I would loop through my neighborhood waving at different neighbors walking dogs, doing yard work, picking up the mail. After a few weeks of seeing the same faces, I started to introduce myself. “Hi, I’m Brooke! I live one street over. Have you lived here a long time?” At first, it was mostly just small talk: wondering when snow removal would come through, comparing plans for vegetable gardens, and oohing over beautiful dogs on leash. But conversations did not stay with pets and yard work. They moved deeper.
The last year hit us all in different ways – financial pressure, increased anxiety, separation from those close to us, a decrease of the wider social circle we had at lunch in the cafeteria at work, the gym, studying at the library, and at school pick-up. Though the felt experience was different for everyone, there was a collective nature to the pandemic: our whole world, the whole city, the whole church was affected. Knowing that collective story made going deeper in conversation simple. I would ask how (insert any of the huge lists of things that happened this year) was making them feel. For example, I could ask: “Your kids had a year of virtual school and now it’s summer break, do you feel like you’ve been able to enter into a different rhythm or is the intensity still the same?” Or “It’s been quite a year; do you find yourself starting to feel more ‘normal’ or does life still feel really odd?” You may be thinking, “Those questions feel like an invasion of personal space.” Hmm maybe, but think about it this way: Have you felt any of these things this last year or this week?
The collective experience of the pandemic, and now the gradual transition out of the pandemic is something being felt by everyone. Knowing this I can lean toward people and ask real questions about how they are doing. Now, these are not questions that I necessarily ask the first time I meet a neighbor, but more quickly than pre-COVID times, these kinds of questions come up. Every single person is ‘not fully okay,’ whether it be the difficulty of navigating strained family relationships, wishing that life was returning more quickly to normal, the increased anxiety in larger social situations, wondering when a vaccine for children will be produced, or the death of a beloved neighbor that no one was able to say goodbye to due to COVID. When you feel sad or when you are struggling, do you like someone to give you a hug or ask, “How are you feeling?” or “How are you really doing?” I sure do. I usually cry when someone asks me something like that. I feel so seen.
In a year of such loneliness feeling seen is a beautiful gift that we can give people. We have that gift to give to our family, our close friends, our small group. We also can give that gift to our neighbors and people who do not know Jesus in our lives. Let us stop assuming everyone is just fine. I am not always fine, and you are not always fine, so let us ask questions of our neighbors and the people we see regularly that shows: We See You. And as people feel seen by us, over time they can also feel seen by God. But first, walk! If you have not yet incorporated a walk into your daily routine, start with that. Take a short walk around the block after work or take a walk around the floor of your office building. Start with a walk, maybe wave to the people you see outdoors, and then introduce yourself to a person the second time you see them, and slowly over time begin to ask some questions that allow people to know they are seen.