Like a Good Neighbor

Publication Note: This column was first published in the March 21, 2018 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format.  It is the 31st installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column, and the final column written for the publication prior to a sabattical and the untimely closure of the newspaper by the publisher.  Thoughts on the future of  the “Look at Lonoke” column and local news in our community are posted here.

One of the advantages of living in a small town like Lonoke, is that the word “neighbor” is not an abstract concept.  In Lonoke, our neighborhoods are interconnected by a street grid that offers a walkable landscape under a canopy of decades-old trees.  Along these streetscapes are families living in proximity to one another, such that we derive a certain sense of place by those we regularly see beside us.  With the blessing of a neighbor comes the opportunity to assist, to uplift, and to contribute to the growth and health of another.Those weekly and daily interactions generate a quality of life that is hard to quantify or duplicate.  We set a standard of behavior when we choose interaction, rather than isolation. Natalie and I have a saying, “Every neighborhood needs a good neighbor.”  We can choose to create value for our neighbors in how we occupy and share our corner.

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Currently, the people of Lonoke are progressing through a season in which we are offered more choice and opportunity than we have had in many years.  In participating in a transparent, respectful community conversation, it is clear that some fresh new ideas have emerged which represent the consensus of our citizens.  Neighbors have chosen to participate with one another to create an environment where individual contributions and perspectives are received and celebrated.

It is natural for the citizens of a community taking steps toward improving quality of life to form independent positions about how healthy growth should occur.  Initially, any departure from the closed, unimaginative systems of the past may seem to be a threat, and may cause an initial defensive reaction from any who would guard those systems and networks.  It is our challenge, then, to avoid the fray and rise above the temptation to “take sides”.  In fact, we deceive ourselves if we believe that our choices are limited or are controlled by the hands of a few.  In reality, we have a number of paths toward progress, and, the good news is, we as neighbors get to define and determine the higher standards to which leadership must be held.

Author Seth Godin notes that “default settings” exist which determine group behavior, and that we all have a default.  You may consider the phrases “That’s the way we have always done it” or “That’s just the way it is going to be” as default  in a small town. Godin acknowledges mindsets such as these create a pattern of behavior, explaining: “The way [we are] set to act if we don’t override it is often the way we act. Because often, we decide it’s not worth the effort to change the setting today.  Which means that examining your settings now and then is worth the effort.”

So, though we may be naturally bent to believe our choices in Lonoke are limited- that is our “default” setting”, if you will- I would encourage us to think bigger than the two sides of imaginary lines drawn according to a status quo.  

The only line of scrimmage that we need in Lonoke is on Friday nights at James B. Abraham Stadium. When our Jackrabbits take on the opponent of the week, there are only two choices when meeting helmet-to-helmet: gain yardage or lose yardage; win or be defeated; us or them.  All of the focus is on that line.  My neighborhood, by contrast, is too diverse for me to draw lines or cling tightly to a limited patch of ground.  There must be no “us vs. them” in my neighborhood. Instead, we have the opportunity to hear and examine multiple positions, and then develop fresh perspectives independent from the tunnel vision that is so much easier to fall into.

With the emergence of new ideas, our community will have the opportunity to give up the “acceptable” and “adequate” in exchange for something better.  When something better comes along, we must have the courage to support the creativity of bold new voices. If we are quick to listen and slow to speak, we will learn the perspective of those who may have been previously unconsidered, and be surprised that leadership can emerge from any neighborhood in Lonoke.  Those who would lead will focus on ideas and will empower their neighbors to create and implement a common vision.

It is the easiest thing in the world to choose “sides.”  It is much harder to choose unity. You see, our choice is not between individuals–our future in Lonoke is much bigger than a person or a small group of people.  I would suggest that, when it becomes about a person, we have lost sight of our purpose. Instead, our choice is to reject cynicism, negative criticism, and toxic public behavior, and to embrace transparency, imagination, optimism, and the wellbeing of our neighbors.  After all, we all share the same 4.9 square miles, walk the same sidewalks, and cross the same streets. Don’t close a door unnecessarily that you will need to have open in the coming months and years. Limiting yourself to a mentality of only two sides is not sustainable, because the day will come when neither of those sides is relevant, and all that will be left is the memory of an adamant defense of obsolete thinking.  That day may come in 2018, and it is important that we not be so short-sighted that we fail to imagine a future where we need one another to accomplish the genuine improvements that our town needs and desires in the coming months and years .

Look beyond the intensity of the current issue of the day to remember that our shared vision in Lonoke represents a bigger picture for all of us, and for the future of our children, students, and grandchildren.  You may be surprised how we get there, but don’t be surprised to be joined by your neighbors along the way.

Ryan Biles and his wife Natalie have lived in Lonoke for nearly 14 years and have chosen to raise their three sons here.  Check out newspaper column archives and other additional content online at .


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