I've been thinking a lot in recent months about neighbors. Having good, thoughtful neighbors is, I believe, an underappreciated joy in modern life — we're all fortunate in the Chautauqua community to have so many wonderful ones. Neighbors are usually not our family and, for myriad reasons, don't always become our friends, but they are important relationships that require work to establish and maintain a mutual sense of respect and dignity. Our communities are made better when we approach strangers as new neighbors, not as the Other.
Many of you know I spent nearly two weeks earlier this month in Israel, the cradle of what many regard as the most explosive region in our world. Yet that's not the sense I and the rest of our Western New York delegation took from our time there. Despite the deep and historical divides, and what American pundits would have you believe, individual Israelis and Palestinians are not constantly at each other's throats. Instead, there is a profound sense of neighborhood, of responsibility for one another — families of different creeds and worldviews working together to build and keep community. To me, this is a sign of hope in our troubled time, amid a national and worldwide sense of constant crisis and Other-izing.
Our friends James and Deborah Fallows, who were with us at Chautauqua for a full week in 2017, have spent much of the last several years flying their single-engine prop plane across the United States, visiting small and mid-size cities that represent varied slices of American life. Jim has written often in The Atlantic about the sense of optimism and community he's observed at the local level, where, in pursuit of the common good, neighbors must work together regardless of their politics, religion or family histories. It's not always easy, and they often disagree, but they talk, and they listen. They recognize and acknowledge each other's humanity and good faith, and they strive to understand one another, for their community's betterment. Being a good neighbor takes work.
In my short time as your president, coming up on one year, I've worked to re-emphasize that Chautauqua itself should be a good neighbor to its surrounding region and community. Much of this work was already progressing when I arrived — through our arts education initiatives in local schools, for example — and we've invested much into deepening and expanding our efforts. Similarly, the inaugural Winter Village at Chautauqua is an effort to demonstrate to our neighbors that this place belongs to them, too, that our gates are indeed gateways, and we invite and welcome them now and, we hope, during our bustling summers.
In the midst of this holiday season's merrymaking, and as we prepare to greet another year as family, friends and neighbors, I leave you with a parting thought: That our communities are made stronger when we see those around us as neighbors who we depend on, and who depend on us. The world is a better place when we all work to be good neighbors.
There is much work to be done as we prepare to gather here again in just six months — there are many more new neighbors to welcome into the Chautauqua community and many more places and communities for us to serve. In the meantime, season's greetings from these snowy grounds. Wherever and however you celebrate, may your hearts be full with joy and cheer.
All my best,
Michael E. Hill