"Hello?" I reiterated.
"Barb?" came the voice. This time it was a guess, not a demand.
"Hi, Nora," I answered, recognizing my neighbor's voice. "It's Beth, but everybody says I sound just like Mom."
"Oh. Okay," she answered. "I saw lights on, and I thought your parents were out of town. I just wanted to be sure everything was okay."
"Thanks, Nora," I answered. "You're right. They are out of town. My husband and I just stopped by to bring the mail into the house."
"Oh. Okay. Well, I'll just go then. Have a good night."
"Good night, Nora," I said. "And thanks again for checking."
Nora passed away a few years ago while I was out of the country, and even though I love her daughters who still live in the house next door to my childhood home, I miss her and what she stood for--the completely nosy neighbor who told us what we should and shouldn't do, who watched us from behind the curtains in her window, and who plied us with pizzelles every chance she got. There was never any doubt where Nora stood, just as there was never any doubt equally that she loved you no matter how often you'd failed. In many ways, she and a couple of our other neighbors taught me what neighbors should be.
Other neighbors, not so grown up, have taught me what neighbors can be.
"You don't belong here," said one.
"She told you to go," insisted another. "I'm watching you. Go."
These were my neighbors my freshman year of college and they were talking to a stalker I had, and whom I had reported but for whom there would be no investigation for another two-and-a-half years. I never followed the investigation. It was too close to home, too disturbing, and there was nothing that I, someone who had been suffering from post-concussive syndrome at the time of my distress, could legally do to help strengthen their case in court.
But these neighbors did not wait for the authorities to do something. They did not pick up weapons. And they did not think it was just my problem. They saw this situation as our problem, and they saw the power of their own gaze, their own ability to say, "I see you."
Two years later, before I was aware of the new investigation into the stalker, my friends and I dealt with a felon roommate. We were told, "Pretend you don't know anything. You don't want to compromise the investigation."
I have never made a bigger mistake than following that advice. My refusal to say, "I see you," allowed her to continue to dig herself in a bigger pit. But worse than that, it said to her of me, "Your welfare does not matter enough to me to intervene. I don't care what happens to you." But I did care, and I do care, and I have never regretted any decision before or since as much as I regret that one.
Believe it or not, I started this post Wednesday morning, before Connecticut, before the bullies on Surfside Drive, before the endless Facebook discussions on gun control, mental illness, violence. I started it in response to my own failings in this realm, my own recognition that for whatever reason last week, I was not able to respond in the way I wanted to the people around me.
I still struggle, and I don't claim to have all the solutions. But from the time I first saw both bully and bullied cry--a rainy afternoon on a miserable February day in a second grade classroom in Plum, Pennsylvania--I decided to pay more attention to how to make this pain stop.
Over the years, I have discovered that there is no top-down answer to this problem, but there is a bottom-up strategy that, while immensely difficult, drastically reduces these issues of violence, loneliness, and discontent. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's reflected in many major religions, psychology, and political philosophy. It's not new at all--only difficult and something that must be implemented on an individual level.
Are you ready for it? It's only three simple sentences that sum up almost everything we know about solving social problems from almost any angle.
- "I see you."
- "You matter."
- "I care."
I see you. When faced with injustice, there is no reason to pretend we don't see. We are not blind. By pretending not to see, we give more power to the attacker. But many attack because they either want attention or because they are trying to meet unfilled needs. If I say, "I see you," before the situation comes when I am witnessing problematic behavior, I am building the necessary bridges and nets to say, "This is a cooperative place here. This is a community to which we both belong." I am establishing a new in-group. I am recognizing a fellow human being. I am building a foundation for peace just by making the most casual of conversations. There is a chance to give that attention, to know that need, and to meet that need before the situation ever comes to violence. And if it does come to violence, then my gaze has all the more power because I have seen them, I do know them, and I can do something.
You matter. "You matter" is obviously harder, but it is still relatively simple. It is a matter of listening. The listening could be verbal. It may be observational. So much can be communicated to a child when you attempt to tie his or her shoe. If he is older, he might be offended. If he is younger, he may be grateful. Either way, in this time in which I often suspect the average bystander would rather watch my child run down in the road than shout "CAR!" in warning, the child will remember you, and, even if they were insulted, they will likely remember you as someone that thinks something of them, someone who sees them. And we all long to be seen. We all long to matter.
I care. Nothing says more than this simple expression. How do we say, "I care?" We say it every time we remember what someone said the day before and follow up with a question the next day. We say it when we remember the names of the kids at the bus stop. We say it when we offer coffee, when we pick up mail, when we smile and say, "I missed you." And we really say it when we continue to listen when the news is not good and when we are willing to be slightly put out to do something that makes a big difference. It's surprising how very much a small sacrifice can mean to someone else. You don't have to be right in what you do. You may really mess up. But so few people take the time to say or do anything at all that what we say and do makes a huge impact.
And we don't need to do this kind of talking and acting just at home. We need to do it everywhere. I have seen it work. It works in our places of employment, in our schools, and in our churches. It sounds simple and overly optimistic. But it works. It is, in a nutshell, loving your neighbor as yourself. It is doing justly and loving mercy. It is tolerance and forbearance while still being connected.
So what is my point?
When it comes to building a community through personal action, the time to start is right now, before it looks like there is any problem. And the point of saying "I care" is not to mean "I care that you are punished," but "I care that you flourish." And the person to begin saying "I care" to is the person standing next to us, the one who looks like us, the one who doesn't look like us, the one who annoys us, and the one who blesses us. The time to love our neighbor is right now, whether or not it looks like our neighbor needs it because our neighbor needs it.
And here is the secret: we need it just as much as our neighbor does.