Meeting our Neighbors
Amy Toconita Hodge
Often, when we consider this question, we consider it from the point of view of the one who acts. The choice is mine. I determine who I help. I choose to be neighborly to deserving others. I determine who is my neighbor.
Let’s turn it around.
We are acted upon each day. Some people open doors for us. There might be someone who lets us go ahead of him in line. Aware drivers allow us to merge. These people intrude upon our lives in kindness, patience, and generosity. We receive encouragement, interested attention, and respect.
On the other hand, what about the less convenient intruders upon our lives? There are those who barge ahead of us. Sometimes, they push us. People tailgate. We are sized up, dressed down, written off. We feel isolated, chosen against, judged. Who is my neighbor here?
Let’s meet some neighbors.
At 10:30 one Saturday night, we barely hear a tiny knock at the door. It is a weeping young woman named CeCe, around 20 years old, unarmed, hopeless, shoeless. She wants to use the phone. My husband opens the door. I check her out as I talk to her. Cold and hungry, her eyes never stop flitting from side to side, she’s hunched against some unnamed threat, she cries endlessly. I stand in her way, deciding whether or not she is dangerous, as she tries to enter my home. It turns out that my next move will be to give her a hot dinner, and a thousand napkins to cry into. She ate quickly and like a wolf. She says again and again that she hasn’t been having a good day. We offer to help her find a safe place to be that night. We offer a crisis number, a shelter, again, and again. She refuses, wipes her tears, refuses help again and gets up to leave. I ask her to wait, and she does, just long enough for me to kneel at her dirty bare feet and slip a pair of my own shoes on her. When I arise, she looks me in the eye. I tell her that I don’t need to know WHY she is in the state she’s in. I tell her I don’t want to know anything personal if she is uncomfortable. I tell her that I just want her to be fed, feel safe, and that she is worth my time. She awkwardly tries to hug me and leaves. I stare out into the darkness after her. I call the police department to report this unsettling encounter.
In the middle school library, I approach a woman a little younger than me. She looks surprised and a little anxious, but I think she must always look like that. I know she has been coming to our school to check up on her boy, since I’m at school, too, checking up on my girl. The other mom knows who I am, although we have not yet met. She is embarrassed that her son is a bully, calling my daughter a demeaning, filthy word in another language instead of her name. My child pronounces the word perfectly in the other language but does not understand it. My girl asked me what it means, and I involuntarily squeezed my eyes shut, hearing her tiny voice say something so coarse. She wouldn’t have understood the word in English either. In the library, the boy’s mom tentatively answers me when I ask if that is her son. Now the dad is there too. We stand in silence, and then I introduce myself as my daughter’s mother. They glance at my small girl and then back to me, recognizing us. Realizing that there’s no smackdown coming, they relax a little. I continue to not give them any reason to be defensive. We wish one another well in this school which, both of our children will share next September. They back away and so do I.
I cannot understand bullying. I stared it in the face as a child as well, neither as the bully nor as the bullied, but as the bystander who refused to just stand by. It hurt to watch others hurt, and it was obvious to me even in childhood that both parties in a bullying situation are hurting. I can’t stand it. Seeing it from a parent’s point of view hurts even more. I am so relieved that my daughter is safer in her school now. It took a lot of work, from every angle, to dismantle the bullying group’s power in that school. The work continues. For some reason, it was important to me to stand face to face with the mother of this child. No words were exchanged, but we did not have to talk about it. We understand. This lady and I have been working on the same problem, from opposite sides. We were happy to see each other, although it was awkward in the beginning.
My husband is a great driver. He makes good decisions. If people get too close, he safely adapts, except with certain tailgaters. He was getting upset one night, telling me about someone tailgating him in rush-hour traffic, “I couldn’t BELIEVE how close the guy was getting to my car! I had nowhere to go! It was really scary, but I relaxed when I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw that the guy was just being inattentive and didn’t MEAN to get so close. He didn’t INTEND to do it, so it is not as bad. I didn’t do anything passive aggressive. I didn’t need to teach him a lesson.”
My husband’s flash response was a tumble of all the ways you can “teach a lesson” to someone who intends to tailgate, from slowing way down to getting into position to tailgate him and everything in between. He is tempted to feel justified in returning ill intention when he sees the same coming his way from the other driver.
Years ago, we young moms sat together in my home on the Feast of Annunciation, listening to one of our new-convert friends repeat her protestations about Orthodoxy. She did it every week. No amount of advice, patient listening, book suggestions, or priest referrals made a difference. She went on and on, every week, the chrism still shining on her forehead. This week, this day, she took aim at the Mother of God.
“This has to stop. You talk like this each week, we answer you, and you don’t want to hear or follow any of our suggestions. No more. You may not talk like this in your priest’s home.” I said.
She ran out of my house as dramatically as she could with baby, toddlers, and diaper bag in tow. I called the bishop, letting him know that the complaints I expected he’d get were true.
Who is my neighbor?
Cece is my neighbor, because she has allowed me to live out what I say I am. A Christian feeds the hungry, puts shoes on the shoeless. Did I choose her? Was she my “ideal” neighbor that dark night? Absolutely not. She scared me by coming into my space, disheveled and uncooperative. I made a judgement call and chose not to greet her with fear. She would not allow me to help her on my terms. She accepted help on her own terms.
The bully’s mom is my neighbor. We are working on the same problem, from opposite sides. We are both right, in our own minds. We can set ourselves at odds, but in reality, we are better off if we acknowledge that we need one another to win for the sake of both of our kids.
The drivers – good, bad, and otherwise – are our neighbors. Whether or not people “intend” to be aggressive or distracted doesn’t matter. They act upon us and give us an [un-asked-for] opportunity to act accordingly. The Romanians have a saying: God gives us bread, but it is up to us to chew it.
The moms’ group friend is my neighbor. She was insensitive to Orthodox women, sitting among us and being so hard-headed as to ignore our attempts to understand and help her. I dealt with her with the same measure of sensitivity she used with us. She ran out crying, and then thought about things. Half a year later, she caught me by both hands, kissed me, and thanked me for using some tough love that day. She was my neighbor, and I helped her, though it might not have seemed so at the time.
Our neighbors are everywhere. Some of them are kind to us. Some do not do good and magnanimous things. You might say some of our neighbors have been beaten up by the passions, unable to defend themselves, left disheveled.
Each encounter can be transformative, even if we did not initiate or expect it. Most actions, even hostile ones, have the potential to become mercy in our hearts. We have the choice each day to live out our faith and act as the ones we say we are: Christians. Feed and clothe the unfortunate. Seek peace and connection. Do not return evil for evil. Speak truth in love. Your neighbors are counting on you.