Friday, September 13, 2019

Love Thy Neighbor

Two ambiguities have spurred loads of the notoriously un-Christian behavior seen among Christians.

One is that the New Testament comes tantalizingly close to expressing tolerance for other faiths. If there's only one God - as The Book affirms - that makes all believers of all stripes brothers. One literally can't go wrong! Whoever you're praying to, whatever you happen to call Him/Her, that's the dude! But then comes a plainly self-contradictory and rather dick-ish muttering: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me!" I visualize that part being scrawled in by some sternly uptight church father with a Sharpie. What other gods??? I thought there's only one???

Here's the other ambiguity:

Everyone assumes "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" refers to the person in the house or apartment next door. But this makes no sense. First, that would mostly just reinforce tribalism (particularly at that time, when neighborhoods were not, shall we say, super integrated), which isn't at all the vibe the teaching appears to be aiming for (nor is it necessary; humans are plenty tribal without any encouragement).

But there's another interpretation that's beautiful and inspiring and is what I'd imagine was originally intended: "neighbor" means the person who's before you at a given moment.

The Uber driver. The clerk at CVS. The drunk wobbling down the street. The Hispanic painter who works on your living room. The waiter. The imperious rich guy raging re: some perceived trivial overcharge. The beggar asking for pocket change (making you rationalize that, hey, you can't help everybody....but she's not everybody; she's your neighbor; the person before you right now). Help that person. Care about that person. At very least, humanize them (crowds are inherently anonymous, but the person next to you amid a crowd needn't be). Take responsibility for your corner of the world, moment-by-moment.

Even blasting by at 60 mph on the highway: give space and show mercy! Do what you can to make it a pleasant and safe ride for others in your corner of the world. Don't push or lag, and if you're about to miss your exit, maybe rather than scare the crap out of other drivers by lunging across lanes, go an extra couple miles to the next one (you might discover good food!).

If you take this seriously, you'll encounter the usual dilemmas experienced by the helpful. I listed a few in my quick-start guide for would-be Messiahs:
What do alcoholics wish for? Booze. Will it help them? No.
What do control freaks wish for? Obediance. Will it help them? No.
What do narcissists wish for? Attention. Will it help them? No.
What do depressives wish for? Isolated rumination. Will it help them? No.
What do victims wish for? Revenge. Will it help them? No.
"Loving" doesn't always mean giving people what they want. And a related question: how much abuse should you put up with from a stranger/neighbor? Well, I know the Christian answer, but the problem is that cheek-turning doesn't help people; it just enables their worst instincts. Cheek-turners might as well be booze-suppliers. For Christ's sake, I don't think...uh...Christ thought that part out real well. But I do love the neighbor thing.

A rare footer to a footer: Speaking of being helpful and not always giving people what they want, yesterday I saw a guy pushing his bewildered 18-month-old daughter in a shopping cart across a parking lot toward his car. When I say "pushing", I mean he was forcefully shoving the cart forward, as hard as possible, laughing, catching up, then repeating. I approached him screaming. Not because I was angry. I was angry, but that's not why I made a scene.

I could have approached him cordially, pointing out that, gee, friend, this may not be like the safest thing in the world given that cars can back out of their spaces at any moment (and aren't watching for children zooming past super-fast in runaway carts), and that carts can easily overturn, and, y'know, concussion and death and stuff. But that approach couldn't possibly spur behavioral transformation for someone so oblivious. It couldn’t have brought him the million miles from “lighthearted-fun-with-daughter” to “my-god-what-have-I-done???” Low-key feedback couldn’t traverse that vast terrain. 

The guy needed to reframe; be shocked into recognizing behavior shocking enough to draw screaming harangues from strangers. So, yup, I screamed, hard, and while he's undoubtedly stupid enough to deem me the entire problem, a dent might persist in his animal brain. Maybe, just maybe, the super fun game of flinging his bewildered toddler around busy parking lots will have been sadly ruined for him going forward ever since that asshole made a scene and embarrassed him. There are times for persuasive argument, but in matters of extreme safety, you gotta imprint.

Screaming at him, in other words, felt like absolutely the neighborly thing to do.

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