I'm a midwest girl. I smile at strangers. I chat in the check out line. I do friendly well, even when I don't feel like it.
When I travel, I make Europeans and city dwellers nervous with my big toothy smile. They make me nervous as well, with their fast-paced, no-nonsense approach to life.
I will never forget my first time on a subway. I was shocked by the silence. No one spoke to each other. Everyone avoided eye contact. It made me sad. But then, the next day, I rode a subway around 5:30pm. The car was completely full. People packed in on every side of me. The stranger sitting next to me was pushed so close that I could feel their arms and legs sticking to my skin. I was so grateful I didn't have to make eye contact, smile, or engage in small talk. I started to understand that a quiet subway car was a cultural adaptation of a crowded city. Emotional distance, while confusing to me at first, was a way to respect a person's autonomy when you are forced to invade their physical space.
I visited New York at least ten times before I recognized how much the people there go out of their way to consider others. I used to listen to all the honking at the intersections in New York and think to myself, "Man everyone here is so impatient. They honk their horns like I use a turn signal. It's so rude!" But the last time I visited New York, with my four children in tow, I recognized that cars approaching green lights honk before passing through the intersection to announce their presence to any oblivious tourists who might be tempted to step out into traffic at the wrong moment. The honking was a courtesy!
I'd never noticed it before. It took the engagement of my "mom brain," something I gladly switch off off whenever I travel without my kids, to notice how thoughtful everyone was being. On this particular trip, as I clutched the hands of my younger children and worked to keep my older two within line of sight, somewhere between the fear that I'd lose a child in the M&M store in Times Square or that one of my kids would step into the street, I recognized that people who live in crowded cities are fantastic at considering other people.
In Colorado, we enjoy our space. We get out and hike, climb, and bike in open spaces. We don't mind chatting it up with a stranger, because we have the privilege of standing five feet away from them. If things get weird, we can simply wave and walk away. Because of this, I haven't learned how to consider other people. I haven't needed to. I can avoid people whenever I want to.
It would never occur to me to give a courtesy honk to pedestrians before I drove through an intersection with a green light. So, when the bible says in Hebrews 10:24, "Let us consider how we can spur one another on toward love and good deeds." I recognize that I don't spend a lot of time considering other people. I certainly don't sit around and think of people outside my family and how I can encourage them in their callings. To do this, I'd have to really know them - who they are, how they think, what motivates them, what excites them. I'd have to know how God speaks to them and what He'd been speaking lately. I'd have to spend some time considering what kind of encouragement or partnership or wisdom would be the most effective in their lives as they do their best to follow Jesus.
If my big toothy smiles are any indication, what one person considers encouraging another person can easily find annoying. I like to give people their space. I know how to talk cheerily about nothing at all, so that I don't risk inserting myself in someone's real life. But, I think I may need to take a page from the playbook of city dwellers. I may need to tone down my outward friendliness and tune into other people's actual needs. I want to learn to truly consider others and sometimes, to know how to do that, you have to get pretty close. Maybe even "stranger's body pressed against your body on a packed subway car" close. It won't be comfortable. It might even get a little sticky. But considering one another means seeing one another, knowing one another, living in close enough proximity to recognize needs and do our best to meet them.
Amy Noel Green is a conference and keynote speaker. She is a writer and game designer who has received international press attention for her work on the video game about her son Joel, That Dragon, Cancer. Follow her at Facebook.com/AmyNoelGreen