A Question of Fear
by Wood Turner

I was talking with a colleague at work a few weeks back about the fact that neither of us had ever said two words to our next-door neighbors. We challenged each other to meet a neighbor a week between then and the holidays. Well, as the weeks have passed, I've been afraid to admit to her that I have nothing to show for our little project. I know nothing more about the people who live just over the hedge from me now than I did when I first moved into my house over two years ago.

Certainly, it's my own fault. I rationalize my inaction by telling myself that, of course, none of my neighbors has the time to chat it up with me or spare a cup of sugar when I need one. (Inexplicably, I always find that I get in my car to resolve these minor emergencies.) All of us who live in America's cities are so transient anyway. I've talked myself out of making the effort to introduce myself to my neighbors a thousand times because I'm just sure the chances that they'll be living there next year or the year after must be slim to none.

As I said, though, I'm just rationalizing. I feel that there is a pattern of separation in our society today. It would be so easy for me to just say a few words to them from the safety of my back yard, but day after day, I keep my eyes looking straight out in order to avert their gaze. Why do I do that?

I remember a conversation I had with some college friends of mine just after graduation. We were sitting in a bar in Washington, DC, in our own little safe cluster having safe conversations from a safe corner of the room. A few feet away, another clique of college friends had their own little insular thing going on, as did another and another and another. We remarked that no one seemed to be inclined to branch out, to reach out to people they didn't know. Of course, we had a hearty, energized discussion about the issue--and left the bar a couple of hours later without a single new acquaintance.

What is it? The paralysis of fear? The tired excuse of having no time? We make plenty of time to e-mail friends on the other side of the world or to join chat rooms where we "connect" with people we won't ever see. But when it comes to making the bonds in our own neighborhoods and in our own cities and towns stronger, we turn chicken.

When I was growing up, my mother literally wouldn't let a new neighbor get settled in their house long enough to take a shower before she'd be beating down their door with a fresh apple pie and a kind word. For my mom, these were the people who ended up feeding our cats or watching our house when we were away, or ended up carpooling with us, or ended up joining with her to make a case for street lights and speed bumps in our neighborhood, or, plain and simply, ended up becoming her friends. What happened to that kind of gesture? Are we so far removed from courage, love, and generosity that we're willing to give up basic human connections for the sake of "privacy"?

I can honestly say that I long for the day when I can walk out my front door and actually call my neighbor by name. Could there be anything easier or more fundamentally good?

Wood Turner