“You see, the trouble . . . with always being active and doing things, is that I think it’s quite possible to do all sorts of things and at the same time be completely dead inside. I mean, you’re doing all these things, but are you doing them because you really feel an impulse to do them, or are you doing them mechanically? Because I really do believe that if you’re just living mechanically, then you have to change your life.”
– the character of Andre Gregory from the film, “My Dinner with Andre” (See clip here.)
Young children are amazing for how they can find wonder in almost any place and any thing. Those who do not spend much time engaging in over-stimulating “screen activities” – i.e. television, videogames, and the Internet – do not get bored.
Starting sometime in childhood, most children unlearn this skill of deeply sensing and experiencing our immediate environments. Most (all?) of us tend to live hectic lives, children included. Our calendars fill up with school, work, and myriad outside activities, so that we have very little free time. And, the free time we do have is often dominated by those over-stimulating screen activities that force us to tune out the environment around us.So, we live our lives with our blinders on, largely ignoring things around us that might interfere with the next appointment or the videogame we’re so intent on playing.
What does all this have to do with neighbors and neighborhoods? Well, I contend that there’s nothing in our lives that we Americans pass over “with blinders” more than our neighborhoods. Our neighborhoods are our immediate environments outside our houses. Most of us pass through them multiple times a day, barely noticing a thing.
So what would you gain from opening your mind and senses to your neighborhood?
- You’d Find Things You’d Enjoy: If we just gave our neighborhoods a chance, we’d surely find things to enjoy. I recently walked around my block collecting flowers with my 4-year-old son. I was amazed by all the varieties of flowers. Now, I actually see all the flowers in our block, and I really enjoy seeing them as I pass them every day.
Moreover, we shouldn’t discount the people in our neighborhoods just because they seem to have different interests than we do. You’re quite likely to meet at least a couple of people you enjoy talking to. In any event, your neighbors don’t have to be your best friends. If you exchange a few words and a real smile with a neighbor once every few days, that’s enough.
- You’d Create Better Habits of Living: If you have blinders on as you pass through your neighborhood every day, you probably have blinders on most of the time. It’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, to open our mind and senses sometimes but not at other times.
Buddhists call the mode of consciousness I’m describing here “mindfulness.” They argue pretty convincingly that mindfulness is very difficult to achieve, so that it must become a way of life, not merely a behavioral choice that can be turned on and off.
Although I can’t prove it in this article, I believe as Andre does that “if you’re just living mechanically, then you have to change your life.” Jim Valvano, former coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack basketball team, expressed a similar sentiment in a different way at an electrifying speech at the ESPY Awards in 1993. He advised the audience that they should strive to do three things every day: laugh, think, and cry (see the video below).
- Your Children Deserve Real Childhoods: Even if you don’t completely buy what I say above about how you should live your life, I think you’ll agree that your children would benefit from experiencing a rich life in your neighborhood. As I said at the beginning of this article, young children are naturals at finding wonder in every place and every thing. If they are constantly stimulated, either in front of screens at home or in structured activities away from home, you have contributed to quashing their natural abilities for mindfulness.
Of course, your kids will be more engaged in your neighborhood if you are. So, do it for your kids. In the process, you might resurrect a little of that child-like wonder in yourself.