Won’t you be my neighbor?

We live in a world that seems more divisive, abusive, distracted, and busier  than ever. These four things—strong disagreements, harsh language, mindlessness, and lack of time—are potent ingredients for misunderstanding, fear, anger, and even hate. These are obviously not qualities that engender positive, sympathetic relationships between people.

Divisions are found everywhere–within politics, genders, races, sexual orientations, and even in the world of mindfulness. People are taking sides, staking out territory, banning the opposite side, and refusing to have conversations because it’s too hard and time-consuming.

And I get it. How do you have a conversation with someone who is saying things that you absolutely find offensive? How do you have conversations with someone in the virtual world of social media or over email or text? How do you have conversations when you have a project due, the baby’s crying, and there’s food that needs to get on the table.

So, what can we do? First, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s a problem—this inability to have a conversation with one another. Second, we have to look at ourselves and how we are contributing to the problem. Third, we have to decide whether and when it’s worth the effort. Fourth, if it’s worth the effort, then determine how you will try to cross the divide.

The inability to have conversations with people can tear us apart as a nation, as communities, as colleagues, and as families. We contribute to the problem by stereotyping, being intolerant, and alienating people that we might actually benefit from in our lives. We contribute to the problem when we turn away and avoid when it’s difficult.

By the way, this doesn’t mean tolerating intolerance. We should never get accustomed to the level of indecency and dysfunction that has displayed itself in the past three years. But, that should be a different blog.

I’m reminded of “Habit Five” by Stephen Covey which is Seek First to Understand, Then To Be Understood. But, that’s not what we usually do, if we’re honest with ourselves. I know I really like being understood and personally could do a better job of focusing my attention on the other person first. I know that when I give others a chance to speak their truth first, then they are much more likely to be able to hear mine. If I let others speak first, with an open heart and mind, I’m much more likely to learn something that I didn’t know before, often showing that we have similarities as well as differences.

In 2019, I had the good fortune of seeing both the documentary about Fred Rogers called “Would You Be My Neighbor” and the movie starring Tom Hanks about his relationship with a journalist called “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Mr. Rogers is the archetype for what it looks like to not only listen, but hear someone deeply.

I read the article upon which the latest movie was based. In it, Tom Jundo writes “Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom.”

Not being Mr. Rogers, it seems to me like our connections with others can be heaven or hell, and who they are is, on some level, who we decide they are. I often call upon the lovingkindness practice in order to create the conditions for connections to be like heaven. Lovingkindness and forgiveness are both completely necessary in order to live sanely among others. It helps when I remind myself that “We are all trying to do the best we know how; sometimes it doesn’t look that good.”

As a beginning step, I find it really helpful to spend time sending the following phrases of lovingkindness to everyone that passes through my mind–those you agree with and those you don’t–particularly those don’t.

May you be safe and protected from inner and outer harm. May you be peaceful and content, with things as they are. May you be healthy and strong as we are capable of being. May you live with joy and ease and in harmony with all beings.

I think this is how we can start to live together. Won’t you be my neighbor?