I was the kind of person who trudged and looked at the ground when I walked around the neighborhood. I was self-conscious and felt disconnected from everyone except immediate family and a few friends. I wanted to be--and felt myself to be--invisible.
I read in my social psychology classes that attitude follows behavior, and not the other way around. We think that when we're confident, for example, that we will then feel like making eye contact, making small talk, making friends, and building community. But this concept led me to try to change how I felt about myself and others by meeting people, actively seeking eye contact and greeting everyone I passed on the street.
I started by waving at every car that pulled in and out of our apartment complex as I was out walking the dog several times a day. It was uncomfortable because it was a large complex where people simply did not speak to one another. No one waved or smiled. No one wished a neighbor a happy day. We were like automatons, unable even to recognize a life form. My smile and wave seemed to change all of that.
People waved back, almost reflexively, seemingly against their better judgment. Soon, other people began initiating the exchange. I saw people wave to others, so it began to spread, and as it spread, I began to feel better about me.
I took it to the next level. We moved to a different part of town where people were a bit friendlier, so I branched out. I made a point of making eye contact with every person I passed and offered a greeting and a bit of small talk. Whether people were out with their dogs or headed for a local event or restaurant, I greeted them all. And the vast majority of them responded in kind. If I don't get a response, I'm not disturbed by it. I remember how it feels to want invisibility.
I've learned their names and where they live. I've learned details about their lives. Jesse, downstairs, works at a bakery and gets up early every day. He offers his sister's cast-off clothing to us when its available. Ben, also downstairs, is a bassist in a rock band. He keeps very long and noisy hours but has a good spirit. Pam, who lives down the street, has recently lost her mother. She has a sweet dog named Bluesy who has an uncomfortable looking skin condition. Southward down the street from us is Ken, a recovering alcoholic who gets around on his bicycle. Every house is occupied by someone I know, someone with whom I've built some kind of kinship.
By interacting with and caring about this small cast of characters, I've received the same from each of them and so many others in my neighborhood. Meeting people's eyes seems like the very essence of community, and each contact brings new possibilities. And in helping to build others by simply recognizing them, I also build myself.