Fathom Mag

The Neighborly Way

On being a modern neighbor

Published on:
October 10, 2016
Read time:
4 min.
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A pile of trash sat outside my house for weeks. We had just moved in, and we ripped out all the carpet and the kitchen of the mother-in-law suite for a renovation. Then my roommate went to India for a month, so it was up to me to clean it all up. For two days I dragged carpet, trash, and cabinets to the front of the house for the bulk trash people to pick up.

In the process, I saw a few neighbors. Some stopped by to chat, of course, asking when it was going to be clean, and some drove by with cold eyes and long stares.

One would think that at the very least the neighbors could have left a note on the door asking us about the trash. We could have told them that we had just moved in. We could have invited them over for dinner. We could have been friends.

My “Welcome to the neighborhood!” card

What my neighbors left instead were several complaints to the neighborhood Gestapo about my carpet pile, which resulted in citations posted to my door rather than notes of generous solidarity between neighbors. It seems that the previous generation is selfish and insensitive.

I was angry, if you couldn’t tell. But this is exactly what inerrant individualism will do to a person.

Here’s the real question. Would I have offered to help my neighbor if I saw a pile of trash outside his house? Of course not. It’s his mess, his responsibility.

What happened to us?

My trash

Needy Neighbors

Before the modern era, people in local communities needed each other to survive. The doctor, the priest, the teacher, the plumber, the blacksmith all lived within a few hundred yards of each other, so when something went wrong, they’d walk a few paces and find help. They were literally neighbors.

You can still see vestiges of this in small, rural communities. One person needs a tractor or a welder, so he borrows it from another. 

A farmer friend of mine started a volunteer fire station in his town with his dad, and he’s always on call, sitting somewhere near a walky-talky at all times. I asked him what motivated him to do this. “Why would you want to give up so much of your time and energy for your community?” I said. He said, “If we don’t do it, who will?” I didn’t really think about how badly small town folk need each other. “We’ve saved at least thirty houses since we started.” 

Over the last century and a half, however, something changed. It wasn’t spiritual or theological. It was quite practical. Inventions in the modern world, beginning with the printing press in 1440, have changed how we interact with those around us.

Privacy Fence

In 1850, if you lived in Baltimore and wanted to send a message to someone in Sacramento about the gold rush, the only way to do that was by horseback. The Pony Express wasn’t established until 1860, telegram lines weren’t connected until 1861, and the Transcontinental Railroad wasn’t built until 1869. A letter traveling coast to coast could take months. People were almost forced to talk to each other in a physical space.

Now, of course, many people talk anonymously, instantaneously over the internet, rarely seeing another human’s reaction, rarely seeing that instinctual cringe in someone’s face from the damage of a word. 

One economics researcher conducted a study to test his subjects’ honesty. He tested subjects with various math problems within a time limit, where they then shredded the scores and told the testers how many problems they completed in exchange for money. The testers knew how many problems most people could finish, and the subjects fudged their numbers a little, but not by much.

However, when he replaced the dollar bills with tokens, which they then walked across the room to exchange for dollar bills, the exaggerations were considerably more inflated. He concluded that when we are removed from physical cash by even one step, we are more likely to cheat, hypothesizing about the nature of big banks and the Stock Exchange and the 2007–2008 economic crisis.[1]

And I bet the same works with words. We don’t see the damage we cause with our words in real space. We don’t see grimaces or grieving or grown adults yelling at each other in public. We see only computer screens, just one step removed from physical interaction.

We’ve had to figure out what meaningful relationships look like in a way that no other generation has in the history of the world.
Brandon Giella

This modern communication fractures an already fractured society. Of course, I would be an idiot to not mention the wonders of the internet in bringing society together in many ways—reconnecting long-lost friends and family, sharing heartbreaking stories that move with passion and cause others to donate their money, and seeing news stories develop in real time. It’s all wonderful at times, but it also comes with a cost.

We’re more connected than ever, which means we’re also more disconnected than ever, and millennials have grown up in this confusing hurricane of communication. We’ve had to figure out what meaningful relationships look like in a way that no other generation has in the history of the world.

So, what does it look like to be a neighbor in the modern world? Who is my neighbor, if not my literal neighbors?

Singular Solidarity

Once when Jesus was teaching, a man stood up and asked Jesus what he should do to be saved. (I wish people did this in church.) Jesus asked him what the law says. The man said to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus agreed.

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” did he mean that literally or metaphorically? Perhaps when he spoke those words, he meant it quite literally since they lived in close communities. His hearers certainly didn’t travel very far, as it was expensive and burdensome. They were “hyperlocal,” to use the modern term.

The man who asked Jesus—who, by the way, was an expert in Mosaic law—perhaps thought this too. He asked, “And who is my neighbor?” This is the segue into the Parable of the Good Samaritan. After telling this little story, Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The expert said, “The one who showed mercy to him.” Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

Brandon Giella
Brandon is the content editor for Fathom, serving as its copy editor. He also serves as a content developer for The Starr Conspiracy, a full-service digital agency in Fort Worth, TX. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[1] Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 32–34.

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