Being neighborly

*A caveat: this post is as much as a “preaching to myself” challenge as it is a complaint about the current state of affairs. I need to be a better neighbor as much as anyone.


Single mom Debra Harrell let’s her nine-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked her shifts at McDonalds and wound up in jail.

A widow left her kids at home while she pursued a college education. A neighbor called the cops, which lead to the kids being put into the foster care system and years of state supervision. Allegations that they were abused — including sexual abuse — while in foster care weren’t investigated.

The “neighborly” reaction to people in less than ideal circumstances is not to ask questions, and certainly not to get involved in their neighbors (most likely messy) lives, but to call the authorities whose reactions always seem to be the blunt hammer of force.

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Like the “slackivism” of liking a Facebook status or signing an online petition, these neighbors probably thought they’d done their part and could pat themselves on the back for being good citizens. But the problems those families faced remained and are even exacerbated by the “helpful” reporters, who interestingly didn’t seem reluctant to talk to the media.

A concerned mom who hung around the park to talk to Ms. Harrell and offered to help would never have been quoted in the local paper. A neighbor who asked the widow if everything was okay (surely he knew she was recently widowed) might have felt compelled to do more than pick up a phone. We  never learn the Good Samaritans name, but we know he gave his sweat and treasure to care for a waylaid stranger. We also know that he was the true neighbor.

Of course, one of the roots of the problem is that we’ve surrendered the role of active neighbor to the government. Not only do we not consider it our business to know our neighbors, we think it’s the government’s role to intervene in bad circumstances. But the government’s tool is force, and its “help” often feels like — and can be — punishment. That’s not a criticism, just a definition. The government isn’t a neighbor, it’s the legitimate use of force, which force is perfectly proper used against thieves and murderers, not so much a neighbor going through a hard time.

We are increasingly strangers in our communities, and the fact that these women didn’t have reliable help to turn to is evidence of that.  And of course, actually getting involved in our neighbors lives is challenging, requires our time and effort, and may result in long-term entanglements. We may even *gasp* grow to care about them! Nah, better to pick up the phone and report them to the proper authorities.

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