St. Bartholomew The Great Church, located in London

Greeting the Stranger

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.