Imagine this: a building built in 1927 or so, wedged cozily next to the MAX line and the soccer field just blocks from the heart of downtown. There’s a skinny courtyard with a few plants; not aesthetically un-appealing, but the decor is very minimalist, and paintjob nondescript. Inside are 40 apartment for rent; all units are almost always full, and house 1-3 people.
Each person who resides here shares the same shell of a building: the same foundation, the same framework, the same lobby and hallways. They live in close quarters, with thin walls that permit intimate views into their neighbor’s lives. Sometimes they overhear music or TV shows, blaring loud enough that lead singers or movie stars voices are identifiable. Sometimes they hear a raucous group of revelers, or lovers having arguments or making love (often, in surprisingly rapid succession).
They have passing interactions with these people, but for the most part, the people who live next door – or downstairs – or across the hall – feel more like strangers than friends. Though they have apartment units stacked on top of each other, with the same wooden floors and ceiling fans, they have no conception of what each other’s daily lives entail. Though they each have a key that is identical, and they enter and exit through the same heavy door each day, they likely .
Imagine now that you call this place home. This is my reality, my daily experience, and I’ve been struck recently by the fact that of all the people I share a complex with, I know only three by name. One, I’m lucky enough to call a friend. Beyond that, it really does feel like I’m sharing space with strangers.
And I’m not surprised if many of you who are familiar with urban living can relate.
I’m not going to expound on a narrative about loneliness, or put on my sociologist hat and analyze why this is the case, or even bemoan the fact that we have lost a cultural appreciation of community and connection. These are all valid and interesting topics to me, but have nothing to do with the task at hand: generosity. How to be generous toward one another, in a container like this that feels oddly sterile? There are small gestures that I engage in regularly: holding the door when someone is approaching; saying “have a good day” when I and another are simultaneously loading our laundry into the washing machines; exchanging trivialities while checking mail. But in this next chapter of The Generosity Chronicles, I’m setting out to do something a little less expected and a little more surprising. I’m setting out a way to make a small gesture with a bigger impact. I’m setting out, also, with zero expectations.
I have been reading Robert Maurer’s excellent book about the kaizen way, aptly tited One Small Step Can Change Your Life. It can be described succinctly in the following sentence: “Rooted in the two thousand-year-old wisdom of the Tao Te Ching–the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step–Kaizen is the art of making great and lasting change through small, steady increments.”
I am fascinated by Maurer’s ideas about big and dramatic change — often prompted by dramatic disruption or action — often provokes a fear response that then works as an impediment to true change. By thinking small thoughts, taking small actions, and solving small problems, we essentially bypass the amygdala (the part of our brain that immediately sends us into fight-or-flight mode), and thus avoid the resistance of fear that so often accompanies the concept of instigating change.
Maurer promotes many intriguing techniques about how to achieve success on both personal and business levels. He’s also inspired me by an invitation to engage in a conscious daily practice of “looking for small ways to touch people’s lives” — with an emphasis on small. The kaizen method tells us that the smaller the endeavor, the better, as there is a much greater likelihood of follow-through, and small actions will inevitably lead to greater ones.
I’ve taken this all to heart, and am excited to announce that my next Generosity Chronicles project will begin shortly! Stay tuned: my next post will explain what this entails.