And though I complained occasionally, the weather here wasn’t even close to the weather experienced in other parts of the world. Australia had floods and cyclones. New Zealand had a massive earthquake and Chicago had high-speed winds and power outages.
Extreme weather always surprises people, as if they expect a normal winter. They voice frustration and disbelief. But they also show crisis attitudes - friendly, hopeful and helpful.
Half the homeowners on our street have lived here since the houses were built in 1985. They have experienced New Jersey weather, and they all own snow blowers. This winter, our snow shovel has worked hard, but three neighbors also assisted us to clear snow on different days. They have done our sidewalk a few times, they let us borrow a snow blower a couple times, and they even did our whole driveway once or twice. I think we all got tired of clearing snow again and again, but the occasional help was done cheerfully and willingly.
And that wasn’t the only willingness I observed. After the ice (and wind) storm, I saw a garbage can in the middle of a busier street. I stopped my car, put on my flashers, and moved it off the road. The icy streets made it a greater hazard than usual. Anyone would have done this, I’m sure, even on a warm, spring day. What was unusual, however, was the gentleman behind me. I waved him around me, and he waved back. “I’m in no rush. I’ll wait for you,” was his gestured reply.
Extreme weather brings out the kindness and patience in people. I saw news reports of neighbors in Australia helping each other sandbag properties before the first storm. New Zealand emergency crew and citizens worked feverishly to pull collapsed walls away from trapped neighbors.
Why does extreme weather bring out the best in people? The most obvious answer: we help because we want everyone to be safe. But it is more than simple safety. In a big crisis, like an earthquake, or in a small crisis, like two feet of snow, we band together, a collective supportive team. With nine snowfalls so far this year, I have spoken to my neighbors more often in the past six weeks than I probably did all last year.
What have I learned from this?
1. It feels good to help someone else. When we lack control in one way (the weather), it is empowering to take control in another way (helping a neighbor).
And we empower that helper by accepting their help gratefully, and willingly.
We also help because we feel good about making someone else’s life a bit better. It is why we volunteer. It is why we plan monthly birthday celebrations at work. It is why we hold the door open for the elderly, or for the mom with the stroller.
2. People just need an opportunity to express their natural kindness.
I have seen how kind my neighbors are. I won’t hesitate to ask for help if I need it, knowing I can repay it in different ways, or pay it forward to someone else.
3. People feel good when reminded of how helpful they’ve been.
We can thank a neighbor for helping us in the winter, and return an offer to watch their house in the summer while they go away. This not only reminds them of their generosity, it shows them they are appreciated.
4. We can replicate that feeling of being united.
Whenever there is a crisis, people work collectively. It is a survival instinct.
But to learn from it, we must take the lesson and make a change. I can reproduce that feeling of goodwill I felt with my neighbors, in a different way. Perhaps we’ll do a neighborhood BBQ this summer. Maybe I’ll just bake cookies for everyone, or make a big batch of salsa from the salsa garden I’m planning this year.
Unity is a good thing to keep alive.
It is so easy to get complacent. To fall back on old habits. Our brains are wired to retrace the route we perform most often, so it is difficult to form a new habit. But what we'll remember in twenty years won’t be who had the snowblower, but the friendship made because of it.
Do we need more weather crises to get to know our neighbors? No. We just need to act with those crisis attitudes – friendly, hopeful and helpful.