When John and I were first married, we bought a starter home in a cute neighborhood where all the homes were piled on top of one another. One night, we were sitting in our living room when there was a knock on the door. It was the mother of Jane, the woman who lived across the street from us.
Jane’s mother needed a stepladder and a telephone and she asked if she could borrow ours. As my husband scrambled to find what she needed, I tried to talk to Jane’s emotionally overwrought mom.
“Is everything ok?” I asked her.
“Jane died a few weeks ago,” she said, turning her back on me so she could look at her daughter’s now empty house. She fiddled with her hands, her fingers laced together and twisted.
Mosquitos buzzed at our heads and moths flocked to the dim porch light overhead. I stood in my doorway, dumbfounded.
“She died?” I repeated. “How?”
“She was diagnosed with cancer about six months ago. It came on fast and furious and the chemo and the meds weren’t much help to her. She was real sick at the end. She suffered a lot and now she’s gone,” she said as tears slid out of her eyes and down her cheeks. She wiped at her nose.
I choked down my own fresh set of water works.
How could my neighbor, a woman who lived only twenty steps away from me, be sick for months and I not have a clue?
How could she have died and I not know it?
I drove by her house, admired her beautiful landscaping everyday, and she was sick?
And now she’s gone?
I immediately thought about what I would have done if I had known:
I would have made her a meal.
I would have brought her fresh flowers.
I would have made her a homemade card and delivered them with a stack of magazines.
I would have done something, however small, to make this woman’s final days brighter.
But I never even knew she was ill, so I never had the opportunity.
My lack of awareness about the tragic death of my neighbor profoundly affected me. Shortly after my meeting with Jane’s mother, I made a resolution to befriend those people God puts in my path and I’ve tried to (imperfectly) live by that resolution.
Isn’t it strange that we live in a über technologically connected society so emotionally disconnected?
We don’t dare leave home without our I-phones, Blackberries, or Smart phones—we are constantly “in touch”—but in so many other ways, we are completely out of touch with those around us—our spouses, our children, our neighbors. So much so, the woman who lives across the street from us can die and we don’t even know it.
I’m sorry, but something is really wrong with that picture.
The late, great Blessed Mother Teresa said,
“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
You, the person reading this right now, probably live in a neighborhood or work in an office, or sit next to someone at Church, who feels unloved.
America is one of the most advanced nations in the World, yet the people who live around us are dying from loneliness and lack of concern.
What are we going to do about it?
Will we love our neighbors—whether we like them or not—or will we let them die?
We all have one hundred items on our daily to-do list and we shudder at the mere thought of adding just one more thing. But loving our neighbor as ourselves needs to be the first item on our important get-it-done agendas because it means feeding starving souls.
Do we want to feed them or let them starve to death?
I once lived in a neighborhood where there was so much tension between two families, one of them put up a twelve-foot privacy fence because they didn’t want to see the people who lived next door. The homeowner’s group went nuts at the “egregious” offence and the issue eventually had to be brought before a legal panel for resolution.
Everyday I drove by the fencing eyesore and I thought about those two feuding families and I wondered:
- Why are we surprised there isn’t any peace in the world?
- Maybe you’ve experienced something similar in your own community?
- Maybe you’ve been the victim of gossip, poor treatment, and/or neighborhood drama?
- Maybe your next-door neighbor makes it their life’s work to make your life miserable?
- Maybe there is a colleague at work who can’t stand you and who stomps on your last nerve?
- How do you love those kinds of people? How do you make a community out of that?
St. John Baptist de la Salle offers a solution, albeit challenging, for those difficult neighbors with whom we must live:
“Adapt yourself with gracious and charitable compliance to all your neighbor’s weaknesses. In particular, make a rule to hide your feelings in many inconsequential matters. Give up all bitterness toward your neighbor, no matter what. And be convinced that your neighbor is in everything better than you. This will not be difficult if you keep even a little aware of yourself. It will give you the ability to overcome your feelings of resentment. Each day look for every possible opportunity to do a kindness for those you do not like. After examining yourselves on this matter every morning, decide what you are going to do, and do it faithfully with kindness and humility.”
We aren’t called to like everybody, but we are called to love them and our neighborhoods, our communities, the people we encounter everyday, are a good place to start. We don’t need become overseas missionaries in Africa in order to feed the poor. We can start by loving those we see everyday—even if we don’t particularly care for them. If all of us decided to just one kind thing for another person in our community, I’m certain we could change the world—one charitable deed at a time.
Some suggestions for serving your neighbor:
- Make some space in your calendar and invite someone over, especially someone in need of a friend. If you are too busy to spend time cultivating relationships with others, you are just that–too busy.
- Put down your phone and gaze at the world around you. You miss the faces of the beautiful people around you because of constant tendency to stare at a glowing screen.
- Spend ten minutes talking to a person who annoys you or with whom you struggle to understand. Don’t talk, just listen.
- If you’ve never met the people who live in the house next door, go introduce yourself! Today! They may need what you have to offer.
- Smile and say hello! I’m astounded at the number of people who walk around with scowls permanently pasted on their faces. Engage those around you, be pleasant, and implement basic manners—at the grocery store, at the gas station, at Church, and everywhere!
- The next time you make dinner, double the recipe. Attach a little note and bring it to a neighbor. Better yet, have your kids deliver the food thereby including them in the good deed.
- Introduce yourself to a person you see all the time. Start with something like, “Our paths cross a lot, but we haven’t formally met. My name is…”
- If you spend time with people who think exactly like you do and agree with you on every issue, consider befriending someone who doesn’t. Living our Christian faith demands we go outside of our comfort zones and get to know others who are different. Stretch yourself and in doing so, your witness might bring a light to a darkened place.
- On Christmas or Easter (or any other special occasion), deliver handmade or store bought cards and delicious sweets to neighbors and/or colleagues. (This is the one time of the year where it’s socially acceptable to be a Christ-bearer! Take advantage of it!)
- Mow a neighbor’s yard just because.
- Perform a nice gesture—like bringing fresh cut flowers or a potted plant-to the cranky pants in the office.
- Organize a neighborhood potluck. Set up lawn chairs and grills, block off the streets and have everyone bring their family’s favorite dish. Give all the kids sidewalk chalk and bubbles and let them decorate.
- If none of the above are viable options, pray daily for your neighbor. Beg God to bless them, every day and in everyway.
What, say you, are your favorite ways to love your neighbor?