I grew to love living behind a fence, barbed wire and broken glass at the top and bars on the windows keeping fear at bay. I craved safety and security, but with risk held at arm’s length sometimes I found people and relationships kept on the other side of the fence too.
I didn’t know how to deal with my neighbors’ constant questions, their curiosity invading my personal space and conflicting with my desire for privacy. I often wanted to shout, “It is none of your business how much rent I pay or how just two people live in this home. I have no idea why I’m still single and _____ (insert my age at the time, somewhere between 27 and 32). I know I’m buying foreign vegetables in the market, and that is just fine with me.”
I didn’t know how to deal with neighbors who shut off the water supply because my landlady couldn’t deal with their landlady. I didn’t know what to do with the anger and hurt when our trash bins kept getting stolen or I overheard the laughter and gossip about the only two foreigners living in town (that would be my teammate and me).
So I padlocked the gates from the inside and shut the layers of front doors on the house to keep my heart safe.
It’s a pattern for me, not one that sprung anew in the heat and dust of Cambodian border towns. I’ve done this my whole life.
I build up walls around my heart, guardrails that allow people to step up close but not too close.
It is hard for me to be vulnerable, to share honestly what is going on in my head and heart.
Come to me with a question, a need for some sisterly advice, and I’m your girl. I’ll jump in and do whatever you need me to do. But it is so much harder for me to let you in to do the same for me.
My teammate and I attended a wedding in the southern part of Cambodia, and I witnessed a neighborly love missing in my own life. Everyone living in close proximity to the bride gathered in the days leading up to the wedding to prepare food and home for the celebration. Older women sat on mats wrapping up rice and meat in neat bundles, men stood around fires as huge pots of curry and meat simmered. Children and teenagers were conscripted to wash and cut vegetables, and even the foreigners found themselves assigned a task or two.
I was amazed as I watched them wash mountains of dishes, clean and prepare and laugh and love.
I was struck by the difference. I witnessed such an openness in their smiles and their hard work, and saw the lack of that kind of neighborly care in my own heart. Where I struggled to let people in, the gates were open wide in these peoples’ lives.
That’s what loving takes, doesn’t it? It doesn’t mean we let people trample all over us with no sense of boundaries or respect. But loving people requires letting our guard down. It means we get vulnerable. It means we let them see our home even if it’s not clean but open the doors wide anyway. It means letting the messy parts of our hearts shine through, because after all we are human too.
I know I will still lock those figurative heart gates when I’m exhausted and need some space, when I need to retreat for a bit. But I want to be the kind of neighbor that welcomes with arms open, that sits with people right where they are. I want to be the kind of neighbor that washes dishes when I get no recognition, that listens well and shares well. I want to be the kind of neighbor that reciprocates honesty, vulnerability and care.
I’m a work in progress when it comes to loving my neighbor, and that’s okay.
Do you ever struggle to love your neighbors well? What are some ways you are learning to do that where you are living?