Last year I relocated to Boston after spending 10 years in Washington, D.C. The move has forced me to make countless adjustments, chief among them the ordinance in my town that prohibits overnight street parking.
Due to the restriction, I now park my car 10 minutes from my apartment. To make matters even more inconvenient, the car sits at the top of a road aptly named Summit Avenue. If I want to use my car, I have to climb one and a half miles up a steep incline.
Needless to say, I’ve become a pedestrian.
To my surprise, commuting on foot has had an unanticipated consequence — it’s changing the way I think about the world and my place in it, particularly about what it means to be a neighbor.
I came of age when the slogan “Think global, act local” was gaining traction. My peers and I were formed to think about how our personal decisions and actions had far-reaching effects beyond what we could see.
As we got older, the cultural philosophy morphed into something more like “Think global, act global.” Colleges and universities began educating us to be global citizens, encouraging us to study abroad and pursue careers that could alleviate any number of injustices that members of the human family faced around the world.
The advent of Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms brought us into virtual contact with people from other countries and hemispheres. The 24/7 news cycle squeezed out local news to deliver national and international issues to us. Global citizens need global information, data and analysis. Boy did we get it.
A framework of mass-interconnectedness has had its upsides. It has brought some of the best minds from around the world together to solve complex ecological, sociological and political problems. In some cases, it has helped us to extend greater empathy and solidarity to others, to acknowledge shared values and common bonds.
But such philosophy risks placing upon us an impossible burden, both in scale and proximity. How can you be sure that you’ve ever fulfilled the command to “love thy neighbor” if the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is “everyone”?
There is no shortage of weighty issues that need to be tackled — human trafficking, drug addiction, sexual abuse and corruption for starters. I often find myself feeling paralyzed by the depth and breadth of the burdens that people bear, of which I am made aware every time I reach for my phone.
My new reality — traveling on foot — has made me consider the merits of scaling back the scope of my responsibility, perceived or expected as it may be.
Excluding my newsfeeds, my world has gotten a lot smaller in radius. It extends only as far as I can walk in a day or as far as the subway can take me. And that reality has created opportunities for encounters with people in the flesh, whose burdens I can alleviate and whose joys I can share.
My regular route to the grocery store now puts me in touch with elderly pedestrians, many of whom need a hand carrying items or help crossing the street. I can’t fix the loneliness epidemic of an entire aging population, but I can walk with someone for half a mile to his bus stop.
And while I cannot rectify a complex and comprehensive epidemic of homelessness, my husband and I can stop every week after Mass and give a cup of coffee to Pat, a homeless man who hangs out at our T stop and likes to take jabs at my sports allegiances.
Getting to know my neighbors — and by that I mean those who share with me space and place — has prompted me to stay better informed about them. For every article I read about a national issue, I make it a point to read an article about my neighborhood. Before I peruse a story about the global church, I make sure I’ve also read my parish bulletin.
The limitation imposed on overnight parking — a local decision — has provided me with opportunities to do concrete, tangible acts of kindness for those within a few-mile radius of my doorstep and a chance to know them personally. It has been an instructive inconvenience to say the least.
Elise Italiano Ureneck, associate director of the Center for the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College, writes the “Finding God in All Things” column for Catholic News Service.
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