White Picket Fences

Image by theogeo (Flickr)

My friends laugh at me when I admit to this but there was once a time when I maintained an uncompromising policy which governed my social interactions: Do Not Become Friends With Neighbours. Looking back now, it seems crazy – even to me – but if I rack my brain hard enough I can begin to imagine why I once felt this way.

Perhaps it had something to with being raised in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Perhaps it had to do with a strong tendency towards intraversion and guardedness that I had as a teenager. Or perhaps, it stemmed from living in the dorms during my first year of university, where it was virtually impossible to enjoy a quiet night in without my friendly (and often inebriated) neighbour pounding at my door at 11 pm, with a loud “Preethi, I know you’re in there. COME TO THE PARTY!” – who knows, really.

But whatever it was, when I first moved out of the dorms to live by myself, I found myself living by the wisdom of the old adage: Good fences makes good neighbours. Years later, however, when I became Baha’i, my partiality for the good old picket fence was challenged by the Baha’i approach to social transformation – one based on community building and the empowerment of closely-knit neighbourhoods.

In its most recent messages, the Universal House of Justice talks about the importance of involving our neighbourhood communities in the process of social transformation – not as passive beneficiaries of a program for social development, but as active contributors in its implementation. The core activities function as a means of building the capacity of receptive individuals within our communities who share the Baha’i vision for a new civilisation founded on the principles of unity, love and justice. As Baha’is, we are responsible for finding these individuals, initiating dialogue with them and involving them in our efforts for social transformation.

What is more, everywhere, a notable number of friends find themselves ready to enter into conversation with people of varied backgrounds and interests and to undertake with them an exploration of reality that gives rise to a shared understanding of the exigencies of this period in human history and the means for addressing them. Message from the Universal House of Justice, 28 December 2010

Many of my friends in Melbourne seem to face a similar challenge – this is a society in which personal space is highly valued and in which neighbours do not tend to have any real involvement with each other beyond the superficial greetings and chitchat. A “how are ya?” is all well and good, but most people – seemingly for reasons similar to mine – seem to be wary of getting any closer to their neighbours. As far as city life goes, gone are the days when it was entirely normal to pop over to your neighbour’s to borrow some flour.

My current housemate and I recently moved into our neighbourhood in the inner-city suburbs – home to many busy, young professionals – and decided to take the opportunity to get to know our neighbours by baking a batch of cookies and taking them around to our neighbours as we introduced ourselves. For someone who had barely ever even talked to any of her previous neighbours, this seemed like the most unnatural thing to do, almost Brady-Bunch-esque. But having heard of other friends who had done the same thing and had experienced remarkable results, we soldiered on, trying to keep a straight face as we self-consciously greeted our neighbours.

The responses so far have been great! Some people have responded with amusement and surprise – albeit tinged with goodwill and appreciation (understandably, as my housemate makes the most amazing cookies I have ever tasted). But others have greeted us with warm enthusiasm and excitement, inviting us into their homes and expressing gratitude that we took the initiative to connect with them.

We met young couples from places like Chile and India, who lamented the lack of the community feel that they were so used to from their home countries. We talked about the daily grind of modern life and the importance of reconnecting with something deeper and more meaningful. We talked about the importance of unified and closely knit communities. We agreed to organise a get-together for residents on our street to facilitate these community building efforts.

We’re going to be hosting our first morning tea tomorrow morning – definitely a personal 180 from the days when inviting strangers into my home was the most foreboding scenario I could imagine! I’m excited to see what happens. I’m positive that the lovely conversations we had with those neighbours over those cups of tea that they so generously offered us are only just the beginning of what will eventually become strong, beautiful friendships!

What about you? What are your neighbourhoods like? Do you face the same challenges or do you live in a country with closely-knit communities? What ideas do you have to foster community-building in today’s busy societies? I’d love to hear from you – please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

 

 

About the Author

Having spent the best years of her youth holed up in the library of her law school, she is now beginning her journey on a career path that is looking suspiciously unrelated to law. She is passionate about children's rights and international development. She asks for your patience and that you oblige her as these interests become evident in her contributions to this blog. It's not so much didacticism as it is her unbridled enthusiasm for the concepts of social action and service to humanity which are enshrined in the Baha'i Faith, so she apologises if she comes across as a bleeding-heart, tree-hugging, kumbaya-singing, fisherman-pants-wearing hippie at times. (She's really not. Ask her friends.)

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Discussion 6 Comments

  1. I’m sure we all have our inhibitions when it comes to getting to know the neighbors. In my experience, I was lucky enough to know one set of neighbors and found that together, we were able to engage and get to know the rest. Thanks for your post preethi! Well done!!

    1. Definitely, Falen! It’s always strange at first, but after awhile the group of people looking to get to know the neighbours is larger and it becomes second nature. Thanks for reading :)

  2. The saying “Good fences make good neighbors” is an adage from Vermont. It was an adage that Robert Frost, in his poem about Fences, was criticizing.But we must not romanticize too much. Sometimes it IS hard to become friends with neighbors, because they do things calculated to cause disturbed relationships and for which even a moderate and friendly approach to them brings no reciprocation. For instance:

    Letting dogs run loose (against county ordinances) to leave piles of dung on your lawn and bark at you in your own carport;

    Race their cars up your pipestem driveway as though it were a speedway and mock you when you ask them to stop doing it;

    Call you names when you ask another neighbor (very politely and without rancor) why he had workmen uproot your own flowers on your own property in order to have something done (without any consultation).

    Every one of these happened to me in relation to a few of my seven neighbors. I have some wonderful neighbors with whom I am friends. There are others with whom I have a polite truce. It took time, but all of them ceased the behavior mentioned. But it was highly unpleasant when it was going on (for a period of years). It was like ‘Abdu’l-Baha on the carriage ride when the driver demanded an exorbitant fee and ‘Abdu’l-Baha simply stood His ground and refused to pay more than what was fair.

    My mother – someone who always respects her neighbors – had a neighbor who tore down a fence (which was on my mother’s property), removed a tree that was on my mother’s property, and poisoned her dog. The man of the house had been one of the bullies at school when he was younger – he just became an adult bully.

    Sometimes Baha’is, in a desire for unity, forget that some people really are mean-spirited, thoughtless, or rude. It takes the patience of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to get through.

    1. Hi Peter! Wow, that’s definitely a tricky situation! And you’re right. It definitely would take a great deal of patience to handle the situation you described, but I think that just further underscores the importance of building strong neighbourhoods and getting to know the neighbours. It’s a lot harder to treat your neighbours poorly if they’re people you know properly rather than just strangers!

  3. Love love love this post. Personally I’ve found that getting to know the neighbours adds a richness to your life in that neighbourhood that you would not have otherwise had. Can we get the recipe for the choc-chip cookies?? ;)

    1. Thank you so much for the support, Corinne, and glad you enjoyed the post! As for the recipe, my housemate swears that it is just the recipe that comes with the packet of chocolate chips that you buy in the supermarket – not sure if I believe her! ;)

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