Life Lessons from The ‘Burbs

How to Turn Our Neighborhoods into Communities Again by Confronting America’s Culture of Privacy

One of my favorite movies when I was a kid was a 1989 screwball comedy called The ‘Burbs. The story unfolds on a cul-de-sac called Mayfield Place in a “typical” American neighborhood. When a mysterious and reclusive new family moves in, Ray Peterson, played by Tom Hanks, leads his buddies on a series of ill-fated reconnaissance missions to discover just who these new neighbors are and what, exactly, is going on in their basement. Eventually Ray’s wife, having finally had enough of her husband’s childish snooping, insists that he just go and introduce himself: “I think we should go over there, knock on their door, and invite ourselves in for a nice, neighborly chat,” she says. “Get to know these people like we should have done a month ago!” Armed with a plate of brownies, they march next door to mend the breach once and for all.

At the beginning of April, as part of my 2019 Project Reconnect challenge, I set the intention to have just such a “neighborly chat”—or at least a face-to-face interaction—with each one of the families on the loop of 24 homes that makes up my closest community. It was a great goal—specific, measurable, achievable, and time-limited. I was determined to pull myself out of the ranks of some 69% of Americans who say they don’t know their neighbors.

I envisioned baking cookies and taking them door to door. I imagined congenial conversations on front porches, which would then naturally blossom into dinner invitations, block parties, and lifelong friendships. I foresaw dialogues across difference happening through casual but intentional interactions—one neighborhood’s contribution the bridging of America’s great divides. Getting out there and meeting my neighbors was surely going to be the beginning of something beautiful.

But as days and weeks went by, I found myself making excuses. Now probably isn’t a good time, I thought. What if I knock on the door and they answer in their bathrobe? That would just be awkward for everyone. Besides, I might be interrupting or intruding in some way. Just ringing the doorbell randomly—who does that? Better to just wait until I see them outside, I rationalized.

The problem is, of course, that very few of my neighbors spend time outside their homes. I’d never even seen half the people on my block in the ten months since we’d moved in. Sure, they drive into and out of their garages every day, but what was I supposed to do? Flag them down just for a chat? This was beginning to feel more complicated than I’d expected.

As April turned into May I still hadn’t taken action on my challenge. Slowly I began to realize that, quite simply, I was scared. Not because, like Ray Peterson, I suspected my neighbors were incinerating bodies in their basement. I was afraid of violating the unspoken but very real norm of privacy, and the unmentioned, but very palpable code of silence that governed our extremely quiet community. In the face of engaging in a simple, but profoundly countercultural act, I completely froze.

One day, in the midst of my prevarication, the one neighbor I do know well stopped by to dump some grass clippings on my compost pile. We got to talking and he told me that another neighbor—whom I had met, but didn’t know well—had just lost his wife, suddenly and unexpectedly, to a stroke. All in a moment, the consequences of my inaction became very real, and the human cost of our modern-day culture of privacy became crystal clear. Here was a person in crisis—living not 200 feet away from me. In the name of respecting his privacy and not overstepping the invisible boundary between our lives, I had chickened out on the work of building a foundation of familiarity with him. I hadn’t been brave enough to ring his doorbell and offer him a face-to-face introduction in the course of our everyday lives. How could I possibly do anything meaningful now, in the face of his greatest pain?

Thankfully, I ran into this neighbor a couple of times after his wife passed away, and I was able to establish a heartfelt connection with him. I offered my support and reassurance, and he invited me to attend his wife’s memorial service. My daughter and I now make a point to play with his dog and get him laughing whenever we see him in the park. The notion that I had been respecting some sort of impermeable cultural boundary by not doing this before receded into the background, replaced by a hope that these interactions can be a small but meaningful source of joy as he faces the daunting prospect of living out his life alone.

At the same time as this experience was unfolding, I also noticed that a new family had moved in just a few houses down. But as I walked my dog past their home twice a day it became clear that it was more than just a family—it was a huge clan of people who were always coming and going. Their driveway and curb were constantly jammed with cars, and there seemed to be an endless flurry of visitors.

Before long, I noticed myself getting irritated. Who are these people? I thought. Are they running some sort of business out of this house? Why on earth are do they need so many cars? Days turned into weeks and my irritation turned into suspicion as I channeled Ray Peterson and let my imagination run wild.

Then one day, as I was walking back from the park, I saw a man standing outside on the lawn. I remembered my intention and I said to myself, Just walk over there and say something. So I did. I introduced myself and my daughter and explained that we lived just a few houses down. “So what brings you to the neighborhood?” I asked, curiously. “Well, we’re just renting and we probably won’t be here long,” he said. “My wife is dying of cancer. We live in the mountains and she needed a place with a lower elevation so she could live out the last few weeks of her life more comfortably.”

I was dumbfounded. Here I had been judging and backbiting in my mind for weeks, all because I hadn’t taken the time to walk down the street and say hello. I felt terrible knowing that I could have been welcoming to this family as they struggled through a difficult transition, but I hadn’t been able to summon the courage. Not long after that interaction, I noticed the cars weren’t coming around anymore. Slowly the activity drained out of the house, which had served its purpose as a waystation into eternity for a human being whose name I would never know.

Each day as I pass that house, or run into my widowed neighbor and his dog at the park, my thinking about America’s creeping epidemic of loneliness comes into sharper focus. I have realized yet again something that I already knew firsthand, but that always seems to slip from my consciousness amid the busyness of modern life: people everywhere—in our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our circles of friends, and even our neighborhoods—are carrying around heavy burdens of pain and suffering all the time. Loneliness is, more than anything, the frightening prospect of bearing those burdens in the solitude and silence of the private worlds we have so carefully constructed all around ourselves.

I set out on my April challenge to meet my neighbors first and foremost in order to assuage my own feelings of isolation. And as I ran up against the prohibitions—real and imagined—of our ubiquitous culture of privacy, I nudged myself on with the idea that this countercultural activity was not only good for me, but also for our frayed and fragmented society. But in the end I came to realize that the act of venturing once more—and then once more again, and again, and again—into the countless breaches created by our hyperindividualistic culture, is, perhaps most importantly, an act of salvation for the human beings suffering all around us in the lonely crowd.

It’s high time that we all just “go over there, knock on the door, and invite ourselves in for a nice, neighborly chat.” As for me, I’ve done it about ten times now. I didn’t reach my goal even after two months of trying, but just setting the intention brought forth transformative experiences that have helped me reevaluate and recalibrate my own cultural values. Resolving to reach out today, right where we are, and before a crisis comes, is how we begin to create a new normal. It’s how we turn our backs on the bankrupt culture of privacy, turn vulnerability into resilience, and turn our neighborhoods into communities again.

I'm a writer who's spending 2019 engaging in a yearlong personal journey back to community, connection, and relationship. It's called Project Reconnect. Join me!

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