The Importance of Neighbors

Curt Columbus - Pawtucket, Rhode Island
As heard on This I Believe Podcast, September 18, 2018
Curt Columbus
Photo courtesy of Mark Turek

Curt Columbus feels that our increasing reliance on technology is making us more isolated and less interactive with each other. By regularly visiting with neighbors, Columbus believes these small conversations and connections are the key to a vibrant democratic society.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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In my neighborhood in Pawtucket, it’s common to run into your neighbors on summer evenings. Lots of people eat dinner on their porches, or go for walks up and down the streets, or drink wine in the yard as the sun sets. My partner, Nate, and I like to walk. As we do, children bound up to us and begin to chatter excitedly. They may show us the praying mantis they caught in a jar, or the shells they collected on the beach that day, or give us the details about the birthday party down the street. We talk with their parents, talk about nothing in particular, nothing too important, but we laugh often. As the orange sun sets and the purple-grey twilight takes its place, it is comforting, fortifying conversation.

These simple, random interactions make me feel whole. I believe that it is contact with other people in unpredictable, unproscribed ways that nourishes us all. I need to believe that, since I work as a theater artist. In the theater, we spend our lives inviting people into rooms with us in order to tell them stories, to have conversations with them. This is an important quality in the theater, distinct from other media. Television does not invite us to collect; we may do that of our own accord sometimes, around sports, or maybe award shows, but television is fine with us being all alone. The internet also encourages isolation with the added illusion of “interactivity.” And while movies tell us stories, they are not in conversation with us. When the lights come up at the end, we file out into the fluorescent light and disperse to our parked cars.

My friends Jack and Sara have subscribed to the same evening at our theater for over a decade. They have become friends with the people who sit around them. People who were strangers have become necessary to them, even if they only see each other five or six times a year. Simple, random interactions become conversations, which become connections, which in turn become ties that bind.

I worry that we have abandoned many of the places in our culture where such random interactions can occur. If we abandon churches and theaters and live sporting events, we will have no reason to collect, unless it is at political rallies, which can be just as dangerous as not collecting at all. We pass each other at the mall without speaking. We sit on airplanes without ever exchanging a word or a glance. We plug in our earphones and open our laptops and we disappear. We simply disappear into our selves.

I believe that the beginning of the end of democracy resides in that isolation. As we disappear into our selves, we lose the urge to be a democratic society, to make simple things happen for other people. For myself, I intend to fight that isolation any way I can. I intend to continue my walks around my neighborhood for a start.

Curt Columbus joined Trinity Rep as artistic director in January 2006. His directing credits for Trinity include Merchant of Venice, His Girl Friday, Camelot, Cabaret, The Odd Couple, The Secret Rapture, The Receptionist, A Christmas Carol, Memory House, Blithe Spirit, Cherry Orchard, and the world premiere of Stephen Thorne's ...Poe. His plays Paris by Night, The Dreams of Antigone and Sparrow Grass premiered at Trinity Rep. His adaptation of Crime and Punishment (with Marilyn Campbell) is published by Dramatists' Play Service. Curt's translations of Chekhov's plays are published by Ivan R. Dee, Chekhov: The Four Major Plays. The Dreams of Antigone is published by Broadway Play Publishing. Curt lives in Pawtucket with his partner, Nathan Watson.

Recorded by Rhode Island Public Radio and independently produced for This I Believe by Dan Gediman