The in-between life of our neighbourhoods is often made up of ordinary stuff. Errands, texts, coffee, meal prep, trips to the mailbox, school-work, and appointments seem to fill much of our time. When I drop off my daughter at pre-school, most parents are simply moving between places with the flurry of, well, a busy parent. Most of the time these spaces are filled with short ‘hellos’ and ‘how’s it goings’ and other small talk. Sometimes it’s witty banter, sharing some bit of news, but mostly it’s not. It’s banal, ordinary, and simple. I’m learning this: small talk between neighbours is wonderful.
While some of the most profound moments in my life happened because of intentional and deep conversations, it was the small talk that made me feel welcome and known. Friendly banter is the language of friends, of neighbours, and shop keepers. In a world where people look through each other, simple words can help us see those in front of us. Kind words can set us up for a good day. Words, even few and ordinary word, said out of love for a neighbour can go farther than a complaint or rant. Small talk, it seems, is not as small as we might think.
About fifteen hundred years ago there were hermits and monks who lived near each other in caves in Egypt and elsewhere. These sages, known as the Dessert Fathers and Mothers, seem like unlikely voices of wisdom to us today in suburban Chestermere. These monks lived apart from each other, but even in their silence they found that they learned the most when they encountered each other at the village well or out on a walk, rarely as that might have been for them. It was in the bumping-into-each-other moments of life that they made discoveries about themselves, God, and the meaning of life. Here are some of their sayings, that seem strangely relevant today for us as we meet each other in our neighbourhoods:
“There is the sort of person who seems to be silent, but inwardly criticizes other people. Such a person is really talking all the time. Another person may talk from morning till night, but says only what is meaningful, and so keeps silent.” -Abba Poemen
“Do not despise your neighbour, for you do not know whether the spirit of God is in you or in him.” – Unknown Desert Father
“I live alone not because of my virtue, but because of my weakness. You see, those who live among people are the strong ones.” – Abba Matoes
It is interesting that even hermits had to deal with relationships towards others. While we might not be solitary monks, we often only see our neighbours in certain seasons and moments. Our relationships with others might not go deep, but they are meaningful. Our work as neighbourists is to create a space where others are heard, seen, known, and loved. This is intentional work. When we make small talk we are acknowledging them and making space for them in our day. Sometimes small talk leads to deeper and more meaningful connections, and sometimes it does not. Yet without small talk filling the in-between spaces of our community, we’ll never know what moments will grow into something more.
May you celebrate the ordinary interactions, the simple banter, and the chit-chat about small nothings. The way you use your words, and the heart behind them, say more about what you think about your neighbours than you know. May there always be room for small talk, and may there always be room for others. The people around you might teach you more than you expect.