Judging people too quickly is a common mistake for many. We’re certainly no different. Here’s an example. When we moved into our neighborhood fourteen years ago, we immediately knew something strange was going on at the yellow apartments across from us. County vehicles would often visit, new faces regularly emerged, and apartment residents would—twice a day—form a line outside of the adjacent blue house. Over time, we discovered that the family in the blue house owned these yellow apartments. They operated them as a housing option for people who were mentally ill but capable of living somewhat independently. Ugh. Our disappointment was palpable. These people were not who we wanted as our neighbors. Does this make us NIMBY’s?! (NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my backyard,” which is certainly how we felt.)
We had to confront our own judgmentalism. We knew that if we held onto our disappointment it would poison us. After putting a lot of thought into it, we decided to fight this disappointment with hope. We decided to attempt to become real neighbors by nurturing relationships.
During our first year on the block, we met many neighbors from the yellow apartments. One stood out from the rest. His was known to all as Charlie Mack. Charlie Mack was tall and slender, he was gregarious—and he was usually intoxicated. We struck up a friendship with him. He would always cross the street to converse in front of our fence on his way to the corner store. Over time, we learned that Charlie Mack’s mental health issues led him to drink, and his drinking led to cirrhosis of the liver. His cirrhosis was so bad that we sometimes had to pause our conversations so that he could vomit. We learned to really love Charlie Mack, but we also grieved that his condition seemed so hopeless.
That summer we were in the thick of planning a block party for our neighborhood when we had one of our sidewalk conversations with Charlie Mack. He began bragging about his dancing ability. We had a lightbulb moment. We decided to put him to the test—a dance contest!
At the block party there was food, a “talk show,” free haircuts, and lots of music. But the moment no one will ever forget was when Charlie Mack took the stage to dance. Boy, did he dance! Although there was no trophy or crown to walk away with, Charlie Mack won the dance contest that day at our inaugural block party. Truly though, we all won that day. Our block won that day. Our neighborhood won that day. Light and hope won that day. And Charlie Mack helped these once-judgmental new neighbors realize how grateful we were that he wasn’t exactly the neighbor we wanted. He was so much more.
How do your neighbors fit into your expectations? How might judgmental feelings be keeping you from building relationships? Are your neighbors, in your estimation, too old? Too young? Too poor? Too unhealthy? Too altogether different than you? How can you turn disappointment into hope by initiating a relationship? Maybe you, too, can discover a neighbor who doesn’t meet your expectations—but exceeds them instead.