I first came across the quote “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” over ten years ago and I wrote it in my trusty journal.
It is one of my favourite quotes.
Over the years it has popped up from time to time. There are several variations in wording and it appears to have been wrongly attributed to Philo of Alexandria, along with Plato and a few others… but this is the way it has stuck in my head.
Anytime I read it somewhere, or hear it quoted, it is a good reminder. Be Kind. But more often, I am reminded of it when I experience the truth of it…. when you’re blown away by someone’s unexpected story or when you’re humbled by all kinds of little things in people’s lives that you don’t notice at first, when someone brings you behind the scenes.
So as someone who believes in being kind, who believes in unseen great battles and who believes in the Love commands of Jesus, like… Love your neighbour… well when it comes to my actual neighbour, like next door … yeah, not so much.
We live in a row of terraces without much space to call our own. Physically, we’re close to our neighbours, like it, or not. For about 5 years we probably prided ourselves on having polite, pleasant little relationships with our neighbours (which I don’t think is quite what Jesus or Plato, or Philo had in mind…).
Then, a few years ago, enter Audrey. Who tested us to the extreme of our polite, pleasant little limits. We didn’t think we had it in us… the tutting, the eye-rolling, the blind-twitching. We became a bit uptight, to say the least.
This one woman in her 50s who didn’t drive, somehow invaded our quiet lives with her extended family coming and going and parking everywhere. With the furniture and the rubbish piling up inside and out. With her son and all his friends using her garage as a boxing ring and a gym… her garage, a stone’s throw from our kitchen window.
So we had our uptight little conversations, and rolled our eyes and tutted our tutts. It was the parking that drove us craziest. There is a way, you know, that 3 neighbours can park in harmony at the back of these houses. There are unwritten rules, and common courtesy and common sense. “Are they STUPID?” may have been said.
We were still polite and pleasant-ish neighbours, but we thought and we felt unkindly. And every time we had to contend with another one of Audrey’s family’s ever-changing cars and vans in our space or in our way, we felt a little unkinder.
Every time I stood at the kitchen window washing the dishes, I let the little circus of life that paraded past feed my discontent about where I lived. I felt so sorry for us with our lack of space and lack of peace and lack of privacy, and I nearly rubbed a hole in a dish or two…
And from time to time we said the things we always say, that you don’t really know what is going on with someone, that you don’t know what situations look like from someone else’s point of view, but they were only words. And we saw the rubbish bags sometimes piling high with plastic bottles of cider, and we saw how gaunt she was… but we didn’t really see. We even talked sometimes in hushed tones that she may have a “wee problem”, but we didn’t really care.
Audrey is the sort of person I have sought out, all my life. The sort of person I was taught to value, and notice. The sort of person I have always been able to enjoy. People have thought well of me for being interested in people like Audrey. But when she turned up next door, like my next door, I wasn’t interested. I was fecked off.
So our hearts did not entirely turn to stone and this summer we learnt our lessons and found our kindness. This summer the heat drove us all out the back. Out the back to our crappy little side by side space, and ignored boundaries. The girls and I started hanging out in the mornings with Audrey, and Vera from the next door up. Chris started lingering a little longer to have a chat when he came home in the evenings. And doesn’t getting to know someone always change everything?
This summer Audrey and Vera were there from morning to night, sitting on either side of a small wire fence, having their smokes and their pints of cider. We learnt their families’ names. We learnt their back story. We learnt about their health problems. We learnt about their loneliness. We learnt they had great battles, not “a wee problem”.
We learnt that maybe their relatives had other things to worry about when they were popping in to check on their ma, than where they parked their car.
We learnt they were doing the best they could.
And this summer, my 2 ½ year old fell in love with Audrey. She talked about her all day long. Her favourite item in a bag of hand-me-down clothes was a worn cap “Look at me mummy, I’m Audrey!”. And I found myself saying, in the sweltering heat, “No Olivia, it’s too hot to wear your dressing gown on top of your clothes”, which was simply not an answer because… you know… Audrey does, and she, wanted to look like Audrey.
So this summer we learnt to do small things with great love. We have not become Neighbours of the Year, we are not being heroes or house-keepers or addiction counsellors. But we have picked up a few groceries, topped up phone cards, moved some furniture. And smallest but greatest of all, I think we love our neighbour now.
And I’m not sure what that will look like as it gets colder and gloomier and we all retreat inside again. We will have to think about that.
But these mornings, as I hear Chris shout his hearty “Morning Ladies” on his way out to work, I think to myself, I like us a lot better these days.