Because much of my writing time has been spent working on newspaper articles, I’d like to share them on my site when they’re published so you know what I’ve been thinking about. The city to the south that I mention refers to Milwaukee. Milwaukee and its suburbs are one of the most racially segregated metro areas in the country.

During a recent week of extreme winter weather, I was approached late at night by a man I didn’t recognize in our open garage. He’d strode halfway up the driveway with his dog, in full winter gear, putting me on the defense as I didn’t know his intentions. It turned out he wanted to express his dissatisfaction with the amount of snow on the sidewalk in front of our house.

It’s true. City dwellers are responsible for keeping their walks clear. We had initially cleared snow after the storm, but in the following days, it blew back onto the sidewalks. With the conditions—blowing snow, wind chills of -40 degrees, rearranging work schedules, and caring for multiple small children furloughed at home—this would’ve been a time to extend grace. Guestering to his animal he sputtered in a heated tone, “It would really help if you’d keep your sidewalks in better condition.”

His tone escalated and my anger flared. He’s not even from my neighborhood; he should just stay out of it if he doesn’t like it, I thought. I mumbled something about getting to it tomorrow and went inside, indignant, but soon wondering how the conversation could’ve gone differently if we’d have each stopped and considered the humanity in the other (not an easy task in the heat of the moment).

The concept of being a good neighbor isn’t a new one and in many encounters, it’s easy work. But the idea of extending care, kindness, and goodwill to those who come from different backgrounds or don’t look like us takes a humble perspective.  

We tend to evaluate people’s behavior without acknowledging the reality of hardships in their lives. We often hold others to the highest standards, while we expect grace for ourselves because we know how hard our life is/has been. Maybe the person who cut us off on the road recently lost a loved one and was distracted by grief. Maybe the criminal on the evening news was acting out of a level of desperation we’ve never known.

Stories have the power to break through our tendencies, bringing compassion and self-reflection. February is Black History Month, a time to remember important people and events of the African American history in this country. But it’s also a time to consider the stories absent from most of our historical lenses. What is life like for African Americans who’ve endured in spite of the darker parts of our history? We have to ask them, and listen to understand.

When we live in more homogenous communities, the stories are less accessible because our next door neighbor is likely not a person of color. We can easily make decisions about entire groups of people without considering their history.

However, when we hear individuals’ stories about the impact of racially restrictive covenants preventing black people from living in certain subdivisions unless they were domestic servants, or the way the GI Bill treated blacks and whites differently (and did so much to help white people build generational wealth), or the way the war on drugs has decimated black communities through mass incarceration, they can evoke empathy and a deeper appreciation for the reasons behind persisting inequalities. When we listen to the stories, it might be easier to feel like those in the city to the south of us are our neighbors, too – ones we want to treat with the same love and compassion we would anyone else.

A few days after my late-night sidewalk kerfuffle, the doorbell rang. When I peered out, I didn’t recognize the stranger at the door. I went outside and found myself facing a man with an air of familiarity. He looked contrite and began apologizing immediately.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you the other night about your sidewalks. It was really inappropriate. I’ve been dealing with some health issues and it’s been hard. I’m on new medications and have been more angry than usual. Will you forgive me?”

I felt as empathetic as I did angry the night we met. As a nurse, I understand how stressful navigating health issues can be, and that patients often react with deep emotion. Once I heard his story, everything made more sense. I wish I’d initially reacted with humility instead of defensiveness. We could have avoided an unpleasant interaction and experienced true neighborliness.

Though our story is an individual one, it illustrates that neighbors are established not only by geographic area, but by getting to know someone’s challenges, perceptions, frustrations, and history. Knowing each other’s stories becomes foundational for supportive relationships.

“I’m sorry for being defensive that night. Let’s start over,” I said. He agreed and we shook hands. The next week we bought a snow blower. I’m going to do everything I can to keep those sidewalks clean for my new friend.