Contemporary America seems to lack a distinct sense of neighborliness. At least, I feel as though connections are hard to make—ones that feel more substantial than a social media follow or a phone number exchange. Complexing, many people report feeling lonely. Why? There are almost too many options available. Yet, this very fact may cause us to ignore people at our peril. Whether intuitively or not, it is easy to shufﬂe through people (or their avatars) in search of something ever better. We want to ﬁnd someone more interesting. Or with higher status. Or with more money. Satisfaction with the present reality is hard, and humans aren't necessarily wired for it. We need to learn to slow down and cultivate the hard and the worthwhile.
Life, as it currently stands, doesn't encourage us to slow down much. We are always doing, while looking to do more. Similarly, I am worried that we are becoming too good at optimizing our relationships. The modern world has given the consumer the power of choice. If we don't like a human, a new one is simply a swipe away. It is hard for us to organically commune with those who fall into our lap. These people may be quite different from us, difﬁcult even. Yet, they often make the best of friends and drive our greatest growth. And I think, sometimes, these people bring us closer to God.
Yet, we are increasingly scared of people. This fear is unlike the natural, healthy fear we have of bears. It's more like an irrational fear of the future. We'll be next to people, but we don't want to know them. Our phones are found to be more interesting. This statement is of course not true. People are much more interesting than phones. Human beings are divine; they bear the image of God. Surely, a divine being deserves a little more of your attention. C.S. Lewis spells this out well:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously–no ﬂippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
Yes, people are difﬁcult. Some of them are dangerous. Not everyone should be our friend, and there are boundaries to draw. There is risk he or she could see through our bullshit—risking our vulnerable, naked selves being exposed. I know I don't want to screw up in front of others. But we need this exchange of vulnerabilities. We need chances to grow. We need community.
Anyways, I don't think I've ever regretted greeting the stranger. For example, a short time ago I was walking around the block and ran into an old neighbor who I didn't even remember. We had a short conversation that added no utility to either of us. There was no business deal or master plan to take over the world exchanged. It wasn't deep. Yet, I feel as though this part of my day mattered the most. My accidental presence at that moment in space and time gave a chance for both of us to reﬂect on our lives. When you haven't seen someone in over a decade, time feels collapsed. I had to try to remember my childhood! Things could have been different if I had chosen to mind my own business and walk past that house; however, this day I had little to do.
Stopping to acknowledge the people beside us becomes harder when we are busy, ﬁlling our lives with doing this and doing that. For example, a study was done to evaluate people's willingness to help a hurting man–all while their minds were put to task elsewhere. Each person was to put on a small performance in a hall a little ways over. In some cases, they were supposed to preach on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Good Samaritan parable begins after a man from the crowd jesters at Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” Because God cannot ignore a good question, Jesus goes on to describe how a priest and a Levite walk by a naked, beaten man left to die. Both potential charity-givers appear righteous from the outside, but ultimately fail to transform the world. This sacred task is left to the Samaritan, who feeds and clothes the wounded stranger. It should be noted that Jews and Samaritans hated each other. I doubt you could ﬁnd a barbeque in 1st century Rome hosting both groups. Yet, it is the enemy who does the good deed.
I'll let John Calvin put the bowtie on this: “compassion, which an enemy showed to a Jew, demonstrates that the guidance and teaching of nature are sufﬁcient to show that man was created for the sake of man. Hence it is inferred that there is a mutual obligation between all men.”
We are made for each other. Love your freaking neighbor. But, let's double-back to the people in the study for a minute. Did they love their neighbor as they hurried along? A hurting man was placed at the entrance of the hall. The subjects approached the hall and this is what happened:
“Ironically, a person in a hurry is less likely to help people, even if he is going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Some literally stepped over the victim on their way to the next building!). The results seem to show that thinking about norms does not imply that one will act on them. Maybe that “ethics become a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases”. Or maybe people's cognition was narrowed by the hurriedness and they failed to make the immediate connection of an emergency.”
Ouch. Most of them ignored the man, even with the message of the Good Samaritan etched into their brains. Now, in this case, busyness and hurry were to blame. There are other potential scapegoats though. One that has irked me recently is the notion of efﬁciency. Because of globalization-capitalism-competition-whatever, we want to be efﬁcient humans. Thus, we discard the inefﬁcient pieces of life, humans included.
For example, we can't be human on the Internet–we are instead brands. Wendy's is anthropomorphized, and John Doe is turned into a basket of molecules that talks about investing and bitcoin. But John Doe brand adds value to someone's life. He is deemed useful enough to stay around. Yet, humans are not always useful, and they don't always add value to a person's life. Thus, personal brands are not humans–they aren't even good are pretending to be a bad human. Humans are inefﬁcient by nature. We dance. Brands cannot dance.
Chesterton describes the efﬁciency humbug in his work Heretics:
“When everything about a people is for the time growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efﬁciency. So it is that when a man’s body is a wreck he begins, for the ﬁrst time, to talk about health. Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but about their aims. There cannot be any better proof of the physical efﬁciency of a man than that he talks cheerfully of a journey to the end of the world. And there cannot be any better proof of the practical efﬁciency of a nation than that it talks constantly of a journey to the end of the world, a journey to the Judgment Day and the New Jerusalem. There can be no stronger sign of a coarse material health than the tendency to run after high and wild ideals; it is in the ﬁrst exuberance of infancy that we cry for the moon. None of the strong men in the strong ages would have understood what you meant by working for efﬁciency. Hildebrand would have said that he was working not for efﬁciency, but for the Catholic Church. Danton would have said that he was working not for efﬁciency, but for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Even if the ideal of such men were simply the ideal of kicking a man downstairs, they thought of the end like men, not of the process like paralytics. They did not say, “Efﬁciently elevating my right leg, using, you will notice, the muscles of the thigh and calf, which are in excellent order, I—” Their feeling was quite different. They were so ﬁlled with the beautiful vision of the man lying ﬂat at the foot of the staircase that in that ecstasy the rest followed in a ﬂash.”
Now, someone may argue that I am critiquing a particular connotation of a brand. That's ﬁne. I feel that my point still stands that the Internet is slowly becoming less human. An analogous process seems to be happening to ourselves. We want everything to be fast and tailored to our personal needs. Yet, if we're not careful, life will slip right through our ﬁngers.
Beauty, wonder, and awe aren't necessarily efﬁcient to cultivate. Thus, modern life has a vacuum of these things because we don't often ﬁnd them worth doing. Why create a beautiful building when a concrete tower will do ﬁne? After all, it's cheaper and faster to construct. Likewise, only forming relationships with our favorite humans feels worth the effort.
Sometimes, I think God speaks through the people we least expect. It could be the person with a lower status than you or that person on the other side of the political aisle. The person could have less money–or smell funny. Yeah, I might avoid them too, but at least tell them to take a shower and put on deodorant. Making the world a better place isn't always so hard.