I was looking around at my neighbor’s birthday party, and I immediately felt at home. It was a surprise party for Grazyna Brixley’s 50th birthday. Grazyna and I live right next to one another in the suburbs of Toledo, in Maumee, Ohio, and we are part of a homeowners' association. Grazyna is originally from Poland, and her two lovely sisters were in Maumee hosting this surprise birthday visit. Most were speaking English with their own distinct accent, others in their native language, talking to one another. Everyone was having a great time—laughing, sharing about their lives and about their heritage and I was just smiling the whole time. I was in the middle of it all, looking around and taking it all in. I took a deep inhale and exhaled as if I was in yoga class, feeling that all too familiar, comfortable, peaceful feeling after a good class. Have you ever felt that serene feeling, or a moment when you felt like everything was right with the world?
Now’s the time where I need to divulge a confession: I had a bias against living in the suburbs, being a part of a homeowners' association, and even joining country clubs because I always felt these places were about exclusion. I felt their purpose was to make everyone look, act, and think the same, where individuality was frowned upon, and uniformity was the goal.
We all have biases that we form from the environment in which we are raised, the places we have been, and our individual experiences. Often times, we judge all future experiences with expectations formed from our past experiences. It could have been that “one time” when that person said something, or that “one time” when the people in a particular part of town did this, or the “one or two times” when people from a certain neighborhood did that, or something we saw on the news. No matter how you slice it, biases are unfair and reek of judgement.
I will never forget when our daughter wanted to play tennis at Laurel Hill Swim and Tennis Club. The fact that the word “club” was in the title immediately turned me off, thinking it was a country club. We lived yards from this place, and we could have spent our summers at the pool when the kids were little, but I refused to go there. Instead, we drove several miles away to swim at the YMCA. I formed my own judgement, thinking the people there would be rude and that everyone would look the same and frown upon my individuality. Man, was I wrong!
When we decided our daughter should join for tennis, the first people I met at Laurel Hill were Dawn Woodman, Kathy Delp, Ann Bennett, Suzie Spinazze, and Kim Pacella. More than eight years later, I call many of these women my friend. They are among the most loving people that I know.
My bias was shattered. I felt awful for even having a bias against joining a country club. I still have to stop myself from believing my gut reaction when I hear “country club,” but I recognize it now and immediately try to dismiss it. Thank God I did because my daughter is a kick-butt tennis player now because of joining Laurel Hill and working with the coaches there, now known as Twos Athletic Club.
My mystified and false aversion toward suburban living was completely shattered while at Grazyna’s 50th birthday party. All I kept thinking was, “How can I replicate this feeling in my neighborhood?” I expressed to Grazyna at her party, “Look around. Isn’t this wonderful? There are so many people from around the world represented here, and everyone is having a great time. What do you say we plan some sort of international gathering?” She agreed.
This past weekend, we had our very first Neighbors International Gathering. We walked door-to-door, inviting neighbors who live close to us, and we asked them to bring a dish and a bottle of something that represented their heritage. Over thirty neighbors showed up—everyone with a smile on their face and love in their heart, representing India, Poland, England, the Netherlands, Korea, the Ukraine, Mexico, and Malaysia, China and, of course, the United States.
Before we ate, Grazyna and I shared why we wanted everyone to come together, and I shared a quote from Tony Evan’s: “Unity does not mean sameness or uniformity. Unity reflects oneness that does not negate individuality.” Grazyna’s husband then raised his glass and said, “To diversity,” and it was as if I felt a symbolic exhale from everyone, like the same exhale I experienced at Grazyna’s 50th birthday party. We had created a no-judgment zone, where people could be themselves, seek to understand one another, and learn about the beauty that each unique person has to offer.
More so than ever before, I have been working very hard at viewing everyone and every experience with positive intent, while still using my Godly instinct and wisdom to steer me in the direction that I am supposed to go. I believe it is wise to use discernment. It is important for all of us to guard our hearts from places, people, and circumstances that disallow us the freedom to be our own unique person, but that decision should only be made after we first seek to understand those places, people, and circumstances.
My hope is that everyone reading this blog will find the beauty around them by seeking to understand their neighbors. Perhaps you can take a cue from Grazyna and me and ask everyone to bring a dish that represents their culture or heritage.
Why not take the first step? Enjoy learning from one another and stand united. After all, unity does not mean sameness!
Diana Patton is a Speaker, Social Justice and Integrative Health Advocacy Coach, Author and Attorney. Learn more about her by visiting her website. Click here to read a free chapter of her book, Inspiration in My Shoes, or read more of her articles, here. Interested in having Diana speak to your organization? Listen to this 15 minute video and contact her.