When I was very young – many, many years ago (but long after 1969 – that’s just an example because I’m really not THAT old, ahem), I used to love watching Sesame Street. It was engaging, educating while still entertaining. And the show took place in a setting which was so different, seemingly uncontrived, but radical for its time.
In Sesame Street, there were lots of puppets and people with different backgrounds, different social and emotional issues to deal with, and different skills and talents. Despite their differences, everyone supported each other (yes, even Oscar did), because they knew everyone was important, no matter who they were or what they did.
And they had catchy songs, like this one:
‘Who are the people in your neighbourhood? (in your neighbourhood, in your neighbourhood),
Yes, who are the people in your neighbourhood?
They’re the people that you meet,
When you’re walking down the street,
They’re the people that you meet each day.’
I’d forgotten this song, until I read an article this week which seems to link in with what I was writing about kindness and overwhelm and disconnection this week.
Now I can’t stop the song running like loop over and over in my mind – but anyway … The point is, one of the best places to start with showing kindness is within our neighbourhood – if we know where to start.
Neighbourhoods are places we can demonstrate and receive kindness
The same day I wrote my blog post about Kindness in a Post-Truth World, I read Hugh Mackay’s article in The Conversation, where he argues that ‘The state of the nation starts in your street‘. While I don’t agree with every element of what he wrote (were the ‘good old days’ always so good?), there was a lot which rang true to me.
Hugh notes that, despite many positives for many people in Australia, all is not well for everyone. And ‘we are showing signs of a disturbing retreat from the values of an open, tolerant society for which we were once famous‘. He then wonders ‘Where has this edgy, anxious, too-violent society come from? This uneasy blend of arrogance and timidity?‘
He suggests three main factors for this unease:
- For many reasons, lots of us don’t know our neighbours. This can make us feel like strangers in our own street, in our own environment. We are not connected like we used to be, and this impacts how well we recognise and care about the needs of others, as well as putting our own lives into a meaningful context.
- Marketing, political leaders, and the well-being industries which all so often reduce things to being all about ‘me’ – my comfort, my prosperity, my wellbeing, my happiness. And, more so, that this happiness is our default position, and there’s something wrong if we’re not happy all the time.
- A growing nervousness about three big threats – climate change, international terrorism, and a major economic crash – which can feel so overwhelming. Many of us deal with our anxiety – or our fear – by simply retreating into a shell of self-absorption. We focus on what we can control, which is often very shallow, and ultimately not very satisfying.
As a result,
‘What I’m suggesting is that, under the influence of all these factors, we are losing our sense of human connectedness and therefore our sense of compassion’….
Does that ring true to you?
If so – there is a way through. And it’s this:
We can recognise that we do have more influence that we often realise. We have it in the way we reach out to those in need, in how we chose to spend what we have, and in how we interact with those around us.
In other words:
‘to transforms neighbourhoods, communities and entire societies … (requires) a tough mental discipline that involves our commitment to the idea of kindness and compassion as a way of life. It’s the discipline of approaching every situation with a charitable disposition, with an inherent sense of respect for the other person, and with a determination to be kind – no matter what our differences may be.’
And don’t underestimate the everyday decisions and interactions we make, because:
‘how we contribute to the miniatures of life – in our own family, street, suburb or town – will ultimately help to determine the big picture‘.
What does this look like in practice?
Let’s go back to Sesame Street. I know, most of us don’t live in an imaginary street set in New York City. But we can still ask ourselves: ‘Who are the people in my neighbourhood?’
In Australia, most of us live in suburbia. We might live in apartment buildings or on large semi-rural properties, new estates, or older areas dominated by stand alone houses, or terraces joined together. Some of us live in regional or rural areas, where the distances between homes are great, but there is often a central meeting place – a main street, or township – which forms the nucleus of the community. And increasingly, there are more of us living in very urban areas, in high rise apartments where our connection to the street is limited.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many of us, through ongoing relationships we’ve developed in our local community (through the kids’ schools, sporting clubs, regularly turning up to the same cafes, or whatever), have built connections within our neighbourhoods. And – whether frequently or not – we have a greater purpose and the opportunities to continue to deepen these, and to add another layer to the layers we have with friends and family. To knit together a community, which brings us out of ourselves and towards a greater purpose.
What if we haven’t – yet – and want to? Or whether we’d like to deepen our existing, infrequent connections but don’t know how? The article from The Conversation provides some ideas, however, I’ve added my own starting thoughts too:
- Walk, wherever and whenever you can.
Hopefully you don’t live in an area without footpaths (or poorly maintained ones), without parks, shops, or plazas for people to meet. If you do – on behalf of all urban planners, I apologise. Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson. Hopefully).
Walking is one of my passions. It’s something I do whenever I go somewhere new. It grounds me, somehow. But, I know the lure of the car when I’m in familiar places. It seems so much more efficient. And I know that I need to resist. Because, if we are physically able to, and make the time, walking creates so many benefits.
Walking allow you time to look around, to see the people who live near you (even if you see them in cars only). You are more likely to interact, to start with a wave, perhaps, or a nod of the head – and maybe, even to recognise others. Who knows where this could lead? Walking also allows you to see people following the same pattern as you (it’s by walking my kids to and from school that I’ve often identified the other families in our area). And if enough people do, it can encourage, and contribute to more vibrant shopping centres and communal areas, which are less reliant on cars (and car parking).
Walking also provides the opportunity to notice where others might be struggling. To notice that someone might not have been collecting their mail, for instance, or that they are always late home and might be struggling to manage work / home life, or that they are reliant on outside help. Or, in some cases, that they don’t have anywhere to call their own. In these cases, they may (or may not) appreciate some assistance – and by building up a relationship, you are able to reach out. Most importantly, you may develop friendships within your community. By walking, we are able to see people face to face.
2. Where possible, join activities close to home, rather than travelling
This saves time, travel costs, and potentially money. It also increases the likelihood of meeting other people who live close by. And in turn, this increases your knowledge of your neighbourhood. It’s a win,on many levels.
3. Look out for the opportunities to contribute
I understand not everyone has time, or resources, to contribute very much to others. Some of us are struggling to keep our heads above water, or have got to a stage in life where we’ve given what we can. I get that. And in those cases, I don’t mean to add pressure (however don’t underestimate the value of actions you might dismiss as being too small).
Many of us, however, do have the ability to contribute more, especially if we shift our focus away from ourselves and towards others. If we can, helping to support community programs, or sporting events, or contributing to fundraising events can make a huge difference. Looking out for those in need – which in many cases just requires noticing, paying attention, and then reaching out – can involve small or bigger actions, but whatever they are, they can have really big impacts. They can also benefit us as much as anyone else, by (again) providing more connections within our community. Ultimately, these provide more opportunities to make kindness and compassion a way of life.
These are just a few thoughts of how we can put kindness into action within our neighbourhoods. And in doing so, we can help shift towards a stronger community.
Wrapping up with one last Hugh Mackay – and Gandhi – quote:
‘If enough of us start living as if this is the kind of society we want it to be, that’s the kind of society it will become. As Gandhi put it:
You may never know what results come of your actions but if you do nothing, there will be no results.
How well do you know your neighbours and your neighbourhood?
Do you have any other suggestions of how we can demonstrate and receive kindness in our day to day lives?