Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This afternoon, my younger son and I were home alone together. He’d just woken up from his nap, so he was warm, snuggly, and fussy. I went through the after-nap care process: change the diaper, offer protein, offer sugar, offer water. He didn’t want anything and he was still fussy. So we squeezed through the cramped entryway of our 1948 bungalow and went out into the crisp November day to check the mail.

CW, my 20-month-old, LOVES going out to the mailbox because he LOVES a chance to see the neighbors. Keep in mind, we live on a busy road. It’s an access road to an Interstate, not your peaceful suburban cul-de-sac. We see all kinds of people jogging, dog-walking, strolling their babies. We see even more people driving (speeding) by, especially on beautiful days like today, with their windows down and music playing. If we could make a playlist of the music we hear, it would be the most eclectic mix imaginable–rock n roll, hip hop, cumbias, punk, metal, pop… Sometimes the noise of traffic makes its own music–the percussion of trucks going over our pot hole, horns honking impatiently, or motorcycles providing an unexpected crescendo. And CW loves it. He jumps up and down, claps, smiles, waves, laughs… Whether they see him or not, he welcomes them. Wholeheartedly.

Since it was such a beautiful, perfect Autumn day, as soon as we set foot on the front step, I started singing the song from Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I’m sure you remember the words, like I do:

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you, so
Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together, we might as well say,

‘Would you be mine, could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?’

Won’t you please?
Won’t you please?
Please, won’t you be my neighbor?

I sing this song around the house on a regular basis. It’s one of those tunes that gets in my head very easily, but I never mind because it’s a sweet song. But today, it really struck me. Between the freshness of the air, the instant calm I sensed in CW when we stepped outside, his excitement at seeing a woman walking a dog, and my own vulnerability resulting from the current civil climate, something clicked.

What a beautiful song. What an incredible statement of unconditional love and acceptance. Of welcome. It appeared to me in that moment to be a prayer. Or rather, a combination of two “prayers” I’ve been practicing lately: the Loving-kindness and the Welcoming Prayers.

The Loving-kindness exercise is simple, but not easy. Find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes, and place both hands over your heart with a gentle pressure. You repeat a phrase while you envision a series of people, spending a few minutes on each one. First, you envision someone who embodies loving-kindness for you: a spiritual or religious figure, or even your dog or cat (that can be fun). And you repeat, “May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be free from suffering.” Then you turn the phrase to yourself. “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering.” Then you turn to a loved one, then to a loved one in need, and then to someone in your life that causes you a bit of difficulty, and then to broader groups of people and eventually the entire world and all living things.

The Welcoming Prayer is much more strenuous. When you find yourself caught up in strong emotions in the heat of an intense experience, you take a moment to focus on your feeling(s) and their impact on your physical body. You name the feeling, you identify it in your body, and you focus on it, let it move through you without resisting it. If the feeling is fear, you repeat, “Welcome, fear. Welcome, fear. Welcome, fear…” until the feeling has run its course. The purpose of the prayer is to interrupt our usual pattern of ignoring the feeling, bypassing it straight to action. (When that does happen, it is called ‘watching yourself go over the waterfall.’) It gives us time to care for ourselves, so that we can respond in a caring way to others. There’s an optional “tag” at the end of the prayer, once the feeling has passed:

I let go of my need for esteem and affection.
I let go of my need for power and control.
I let go of my need for safety and security.
I let go of my need to change the situation.

So often we let those three needs get in our way. We hold on so tightly to needing esteem, control, safety, etc., that our attempts to achieve them actually prevent us from getting our needs met. We all have our knee-jerk responses to feeling threatened in these areas, which usually fall into two categories: greed (holding on to things we perceive as good or pleasurable) and hatred (pushing away the things we perceive as bad or unpleasant). When we do either of those, we limit our focus. Like St. Paul says, we see only in part. The Welcoming Prayer is supposed to help atrophy those knee-jerk pathways, so we can respond to changes and challenges with equanimity. We can come a little closer to seeing the way God sees–where darkness and light are both alike, where things aren’t black and white. Where all are welcome, even the people and changes we want to pull away from. Where there’s no shame, and we can feel our fear and anger, and not be ruled by them.

Thomas Aquinas says all things are contained in God. Meister Eckhart echoes that vastness by saying, “God is greater than God.” And Fr. Gregory Boyle elaborates,

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel says, ‘How narrow is the gate that leads to life.’ Mistakenly, I think, we have come to believe that this is about restriction. The way is narrow. But it really wants us to see that narrowness is the way. St Hedwig writes, ‘All is narrow for me, I feel so vast.’ It’s about funneling ourselves into a central place. Our choice is not to focus on the narrow, but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all. It is about an entry into the expansive.

Stepping outside with CW today felt like that. Out of the stuffy house, isolated, sleepy, and clingy, he burst through our narrow doorway into the invigorating expansiveness of our street with an attitude of utter delight and welcome. He asked every person zooming by our mailbox, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine?” Every person he sees, he seems to greet from the same place as Mr. Rogers: “I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.” With your weird music and smelly car. No matter where you’re going or where you’re coming from. No matter your color, shape, or size. Whoever you are, the fact that you and I are here on this street together, makes us neighbors. You’re just the one God sent down the street this moment, and so you’re just the one I wanted.

Would you consider joining me in a new exercise? It’s a combination loving-kindness / welcoming exercise, written by Mr. Rogers.

Go outside to your mailbox, at the edge of your driveway, to the boundary of what’s “private” and “public” space. Begin to sing Mr. Rogers’s song to yourself, silently or aloud. The first time through, sing it to God. The second time, sing it to yourself. Then, sing it to your actual neighbors, turning to face each different home or building as you sing.

Then, imagine different neighbors: an African-American family, a family of Mexican immigrants, a Muslim family, a same-sex couple. Someone with different religious beliefs. Different political views. Anyone whose perceived different-ness causes you to feel threatened, so that your knee-jerk response is to seek out esteem/affection, power/control, or safety/security by pushing that person away. Even if that person doesn’t actually live in your immediate physical neighborhood, your life and theirs are linked. Your well-being and their well-being are linked. Whether we admit it or not, we are all neighbors. We are all contained in God, all live and move and have our being in God. God’s vastness and expansiveness includes us all–all our darkness and all our light are the same to God.

Let’s make the most of this beautiful day. 
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
‘Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?’

Won’t you please, won’t you please? 
Oh, please, won’t you be

my neighbor?


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