Neighbours can be tricky

Millions are suffering. How can you be a neighbor to all of them?

Posted Jul 18, 2018

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Terraced Houses
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In the first house I owned, I failed to get to know the people next door. I was working flat out in those days and the neighbors never seemed to be around. Since then, things have been mixed. Right now, I have great neighbors on both sides, always friendly and helpful; but I was not always so lucky.

Some years ago, I lived in a small terraced house. One evening, through the wall, I heard a woman's voice crying repeatedly for help. It sounded like her husband was beating her. I made some loud noises, so they knew I could hear them. Things went quiet. Then I called the police. The officer said there was nothing they could do, as the alleged violence was taking place in a private home. (I think the law on this has changed since.) He suggested speaking to Social Services. When I called them the following day, the Social Worker said the couple already had a caseworker assigned, thanked me, and said the message would be passed on. This couple moved away soon after, leaving me with a sense of relief.

Being neighborly where you live means being aware of what's going on, taking a friendly interest, being understanding and tolerant, helping when you can and seeking outside help when necessary. Ideally, this extends beyond your front door, throughout your local community. But what about the people who live further afield? Here's a quote from an American called Tyler Wigg-Stevenson I came across recently: "Every time I browse online news, I feel like I am walking down a fibre-optic Jericho Road, and the ditches each side are filled with billions of people in various forms of distress, all crying out. How can I be a neighbor to all of them?"

Even people without a Christian upbringing may have heard of 'The Good Samaritan' parable told by Jesus.* It is the story of a man helping someone on the road to Jericho who has been robbed by bandits and beaten half to death. Where a priest and another so-called respectable person, a Levite, ignored the traumatized victim, it was a stranger from another, often despised, social group — a Samaritan — who comes generously to the rescue, binding the man's wounds, taking him to a nearby inn and paying for his stay there until he has recovered fully. Jesus' point: In that story, it was the Samaritan who acted as neighbor. In other words, good intentions and good deeds reveal a person's true neighborly nature, not position or status. The compassionate Samaritan is the one to emulate, not the others.

But what about Wigg-Stevenson's question: "How can I be a neighbor to all of them?" Even a kindhearted billionaire would have a problem, don't you think, trying to help all the sick, hungry and destitute, the displaced people, the victims of all the man-made wars and catastrophes and the natural disasters in the world? There are, after all, over 65 million refugees. On the other hand, it does not seem right to copy the priest and the Levite by turning our eyes away, crossing the road so to speak. But how can we avoid feeling ashamed or guilty as bystanders in a troubled world?

The answer for me is to cultivate compassion and wisdom. I think of wisdom as a type of sacred knowledge, not the knowledge of facts (like you get from science), but the knowledge of how to be and behave for the best in any given situation. It involves a kind of intuition, an immediate holistic or total grasp of what's going on in a way that leads directly to necessary speech and action; or, as it may be, to silence and stillness, to somehow avoiding ill-judged impulses.

Wisdom is always completely selfless, even to the point of self-sacrifice. It seeks what is best for everyone, and therefore embodies kindness, the recognition that we — the entirety of humanity —are ultimately of one kind. To put it another way, 'Wisdom without compassion is false.'

Likewise and importantly, 'Compassion without wisdom is foolish.' It takes effort to care for others in difficulty or distress, and it rapidly uses up our emotional energy. So wisdom involves taking care of oneself too, making sure you have support and time to replenish your stores of both energy and compassion, otherwise it leads to exhaustion, compassion-fatigue, 'burnout.'

The answer to Wigg-Stevenson, then, is, 'Do what you can, while you can. Rest and recuperate, take stock, then resume. Do not feel you have to achieve the impossible. Ask for help. Set an example, in this way, and you will encourage others to join in and help too.' The Samaritan, for example, recruited the inn-keeper to look after the wounded man.

There is something else we can do, and that is to build into our way of life a pattern of behavior to ensure our continuing growth as wise and compassionate human beings. I have written about this in my recent book Seeking Wisdom: A Spiritual Manifesto, recommending the idea of a personal development plan (PDP) or spiritual development program (SDP), the simplest of which would involve a daily routine consisting of three parts: a) regular quiet time (for meditation, reflection or prayer), b) appropriate study (of religious or spiritual material), c) maintaining supportive friendships with others who share similar humanitarian or spiritual aims and values.

Each person can follow a program that suits them best. You may prefer knitting, jogging or chanting to meditation, for example. A key additional suggestion, though, is to get into the habit of helping others, whether through regular voluntary work or other frequent acts of kindness. Peace activist Desmond Tutu said, 'Ultimately, our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others'.** Take these words to heart, for this is wisdom indeed.

Copyright Larry Culliford


*The Bible, Luke 10: 29-37

** Dalai Lama, H.H. & Tutu, D. with Abrams, D. (2016) The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. London: Hutchinson.