I've been moaning and groaning lately about the sorry state of our civil discourse and about how I just wish people would be nice. (I've written about that, too: here and here.)
But today I experienced the world the way I'd like to experience it more often. And I realized that it has a lot to do with being part of a small community. That's where real life is so often experienced anyway. We are nicer to one another because we are in relationship - we know one another, we know about one another, we know we will see one another again. We treat others well because we recognize them as part of our small community. The fact that we are all neighbors in the wider world is often lost on us, but when we visit our own grocery store, our own neighborhood restaurant, we get it that these are our people and we belong to them, too.
And so we make small communities in the midst of larger ones.
This morning I went to the gym and I ran into someone I knew ten or twelve years ago. We worked out side by side and caught up with each other; I learned about her two-year old child and she learned about my work as a priest (neither of which were part of our lives when we knew each other before). The workout went by faster and was much more enjoyable than just being alone in a room full of individuals working out to their own soundtracks. We agreed to try to make it to the gym on the same schedule when we could to support one another in our efforts to get back in shape.
This afternoon, I took my mom to meet with her new geriatrician. I am always impressed with the people who work with the elderly in her community (which is a complex of independent retirement-age housing, assisted living, rehab and nursing care, a health center, a geriatric hospital and the outpatient clinic where several geriatricians practice). Everyone, from the person who drives the van to the person who checks you in to the doctors and nurses, are so patient and kind and helpful. They are used to working with people who are a little slower, a little confused, maybe harder of hearing or unsteady on their feet. They interact with everyone. I have never seen anyone there be impatient. And they always call people by name.
This is how they make and support the community. By being invested in it - knowing people by name, not being in a hurry, being ready to help someone who is unsteady or who needs help stepping up onto the curb or opening a door or whatever. The buildings themselves are user-friendly, too. At the geriatric clinic, all is on one floor, with wide hallways, and there room between chairs for wheelchairs and walkers and people going two-by-two. The check in desk is right by the door - one doesn't have to look for it - and there are large photographs of all the doctors on the wall, so you can see what your doctor will look like (or remind yourself).
After the doctor visit, we went to the drug store across the street. They deliver to my mom's apartment complex and they obviously do a lot of business with the folks who live there (the van drives the seniors over there once a week as well). And so they are part of the community, too. The people in the store are friendly and helpful and will assist with anything from walking customers over to the correct aisle to find what you're looking for to walking them through the card swiping routine at the checkout. They, too, are not in a hurry.
Everywhere we went, we stopped to have conversation with someone. Everyone always had time to say hello and to listen to one another. Everyone called the people they interacted with by name. Everyone was patient. Because everyone knew that we'd be back, that we'd see one another again, that we belong to one another as part of the community.
I wish we could act this way on a larger scale.