Who is my neighbor? Over the course of life’s wanderings my answer to this question has gone through expansion and contraction cycles, and as I stumble into middle age over the cracks and potholes I recognize I’ve treated the question at times as rhetorical and metaphorical, but increasingly in recent years, literal. Especially this year, and especially at this time of year as I make decisions about the votes I will cast for elected offices in November.
The passionate pursuit of a single issue can drive a vote. As I write this, I’ve just read the fine commentary on these pages by Erik Johnson, who discourages us from hinging our decisions on single issues (“At election time, you have a voice — and it is your obligation to use it,” Oct. 19). I have never been a single-issue voter, but in these complex times parsimony is an elixir. The issue I claim is the principle of nurturing (the breadth of which may get me a pass from detractors of single-issue voting). Oxford Languages defines nurturing as “to care for and encourage the growth and development of.” As a mental health professional, I’ve become aware of the ubiquity of the need for nurturing (all of us, not just those who seek professional support), and as a Lutheran I struggle with the limitations on the bandwidth I have for contributing to the nurturing needed where my family lives in the urban core and across the state where my kids will grow up alongside yours.
A natural tendency
Humans have a natural tendency to nurture — with our families, pets, gardens, clubs, teams, businesses — reflecting the importance of people, where we belong, and what we are responsible for. We can recognize nurturing in the actions of people who inspire us. We read about nurturing in the newspaper and other media every day in wide-ranging stories of long-sustained efforts in every sector of life from global politics to sports to race relations, in obituaries telling us how the world is a better place because of ideas, values, and visions nurtured. Nurturing is not something the political right or the left can claim — thankfully it is a nonpartisan path to tread.
In his 2015 book “The Nurture Effect,” Anthony Biglan argues for nurturing as the core of solutions to challenges faced by individual people, families, schools, and our larger society (among other roles in his influential career in social/behavioral science, Biglan directed the research consortium of the Promise Neighborhoods initiative under the Obama administration). He describes nurturing as a scalable practice supported by decades of research across sectors of society that drives improvements to the human condition at the individual and systems levels. Biglan traces the origin of his push for nurturing to his work on a 2009 Institute of Medicine report on preventing social and health problems: “I began to see common threads that ran through all successful programs, policies, and practices … all of them make people’s environments more nurturing.”
Neighbors = Minnesotans
Back to the question “who is my neighbor,” I have settled on the answer of “everyone in Minnesota.” Business and pleasure have taken me all over this state to experience the richness of its people, places, and pursuits. But rather than a simple balm for my struggling spirit and a road map for action, this answer adds complexity. The decisions I make at the ballot box this November cannot possibly nurture all my neighbors in the ways they would define it. It is not a zero-sum calculation, but what nurtures the (mostly white) neighbors on my block may not nurture my BIPOC neighbors. Decisions that nurture my urban hometown or my beloved wild lands may not nurture the farmers who grow my food or the mining families who produce resources for our state and far beyond. I try to listen and learn but I don’t walk in the shoes of others. I embrace the tension in having no simple answers and in rejecting the dichotomous choices of our politics.
There will be winners in this election who will earn the responsibility of nurturing their entire constituencies, and must be held to account in that regard. I cling to an optimism that I am not alone in the hope that our civil discourse can embrace the difficult shades of gray it has shied away from in this age of the echo chamber, and collectively our tendencies as nurturers will pave smoother roads for all our neighbors.
Tim Moore is a psychologist who lives in St. Paul with his wife and three children.
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