In the wake of terrorist acts, or school shootings, or other horrific acts of violence, we feel duped. How could we have missed the signs? Or have been susceptible? We remind ourselves to be vigilant. Be suspicious. If you see something, say something. In other words, mistrust thy neighbor. We look at people differently. Everyone becomes a potential enemy. We ask ourselves, how well do we know the people who live next door? What do we really think of our children’s teachers or day care workers?
I admit that after the Boston Marathon bombings, even I began to look at my neighbors with more apprehension. I didn’t like this fact. But there it was.
Perhaps at no other time in American history—at least since the Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism—have we been more skeptical of our fellow citizens. While our inclination might be to circle the wagons and become more suspicious than ever, there is another way to combat this proclivity towards wariness.
With more openness, not less.
It may seem counterintuitive—but it’s actually quite logical. After all, many of these deplorable acts of violence arise because perpetrators feel disconnected. Their social networks decay. They develop anti-social and extremist views. When people detach, bad things are more likely to happen.
My five-step plan:
1.) Be polite. Open doors. Ask, “Can I help you with that?” I know this sounds like kindergarten-level civics, but the small stuff really helps smooth our social interactions. I scratch your back (figuratively, or maybe literally), and you’ll be more inclined to scratch someone else’s later that day.
2.) Engage. Each day, strike up a conversation with at least one person you don’t know. It might be someone waiting on the subway platform next to you, or someone you pull up next to at a stoplight. “Hello,” “Great weather, huh?” “Did you catch the game last night?” are all good conversation starters. Exchanging pleasantries with people I barely know instantly makes me feel more connected.
3.) Have faith. When I’m at a cafe and need to leave my computer for a bathroom or phone break, I’ll ask the person sitting next to me—a total stranger—to guard my laptop. Something about entrusting a valuable possession to someone I don’t know widens and refreshes my spirit. Be trusting, but don’t be stupid.
4.) Know thy neighbor. Get to know the people who live on your street. Invite them to your backyard cookouts. Start a block party. I recently chatted up someone on my street who I’ve known by sight for eight years, but never spoke to.
5.) Acknowledge the existence of others. Look up from your iPhone. Say hello to someone you pass on the sidewalk. Set aside time to interact—not on Facebook—but in person. Make your fellow citizens feel noticed, real and alive.
Some may find these ways to restore faith and encourage trust unusual. Others might label them naive. But to me, rebuilding community in these dubious days calls for deliberate action.
Please add your ideas to the comments section below.
[Note: this essay originally appeared on WBUR's Cognoscenti]
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and geek.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, he publishes travel, arts, and pop culture stories, essays and reviews regularly in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, and wired.com and has published hundreds of articles in dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide, including BoingBoing, CNN.com, io9.com, Playboy, National Geographic Traveler, Psychology Today, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Fodor's travel guides. He is a core contributor to the blog "GeekDad" at wired.com, his blog "Geek Pride" is seen regularly on PsychologyToday.com, and he is a regular contributor to Boston NPR affiliate WBUR's Cognoscenti blog. He is a book and film critic for the Boston Globe, and is the film columnist for Art New England. Read more here.