August 6, 2009
When It's Hard to Love Your Neighbor
The first time we met Barty, he tried to sell us insurance. We didn't need it. We were a young healthy couple, just married, who had spent our last dime and borrowed not a few more to buy our first house in this strange new land called a Subdivision. Barty was one of the first people we met, and for some time, every time he saw us, he followed us around and told us stories of young newlyweds like ourselves where one spouse died and the other was left destitute. Or of people whose house burned down and who found their homeowners' insurance dreadfully insufficient. Neither looks of horror nor polite demurrals deterred him; in the eleven years of our unfortunate and passing acquaintance with him, we've discovered that he does tend to stick to a theme.
And tell inappropriate jokes to women. And criticize people's politics. And not pay his taxes. And allow his dogs to run loose, peeing and pooping all over people's yards. Ugh.
He's fresh on my mind, since I had a sort of run-in with him a couple of mornings ago. (I've been trying to write this post ever since.) Well, fresh isn't exactly the word, just persistent, unpleasant but hard to get rid of, kind of like the smell of a dumpster assaulting you unexpectedly via a strong gust of wind as you walk out of the door of your favorite coffeeshop holding an overpriced beverage you were hoping to enjoy but can't now, dammit, because you can't get that smell out of your nostrils. Or a catchy but awful song that pops into your head for no good reason, like Gretchen Wilson's Redneck Woman, which I heard in its entirety once. It was kind of like watching a train wreck, not that I have or anything, it's just that once the song started it was SO awful I had to listen to the rest to see just HOW awful it was. Dear God, it was awful.
I digress. Where was I? Oh, right. Awful. Barty. Well, a couple of mornings ago, there I was in my front yard, minding my own beeswax, enjoying the finite and deceptive coolness of the early morning hours in August in Georgia, when Barty came waddling down the street leading, or led by, his two dogs--Green Bean, who looks like a fox with pinkeye, and Nermal, who looks like a Holstein. I was also trying to keep my gleefully bike-riding offspring from getting run over by wayward landscaping trucks. The houses in this neighborhood had to have been numbered by someone who does mazes for a living, and everyone who gets lost turns around in our cul-de-sac. So I couldn't duck inside like I normally do to avoid him. It wasn't half a minute into our conversation--and I use that term loosely, because his hearing isn't any better than his social skills--that he started yelling at me about Obama. "How do you like your boy Obama [emphasis mine] now, huh? You know their goal is government control of the banks and health care. 1.2 trillion dollars. They've already got GM. Lack of experience blah blah blah, doesn't know what he's doing blah blah blah, your children [points at kids] and grandchildren are going to pay for this, blah blah [insert Fox News talking point] blah blah..."
Dude. All I did was say good morning. Now get your poopy-ass dogs out of my front yard, stop spewing your venom in front of my children, and go on home and kiss your signed photo of Rush Limbaugh.
I like people. I really do. Even when they themselves don't really like people. One of my favorite folks is an intractable misanthropist, though if he includes me in his disdain for the masses he's never told me. In any case, I believe there's beauty in everyone somewhere, and even when I have a little trouble seeing it at first in someone, I can usually find something interesting about them.
But every once in awhile, I encounter someone who seriously challenges me, who I cannot make myself like, appreciate, or even tolerate very well. And when I do, I find myself very much disturbed, it being an article of faith with me that there's something to love in everyone; I regard it as a personal challenge to find it and a personal failing when I don't.
I cannot love this neighbor. I cannot like him. I cannot tolerate him. I can't even find anything interesting about him. I just keep thinking words like vile, odious, repulsive, unpleasant, and offensive. No matter how hard I try, I just keep having fantasies about him dropping dead of a massive heart attack and finding himself in the middle of the afterlife's reenactment of Woodstock, which would be a pretty cool scene to visit for some but would pretty much be hell for him. Aaaahhhh....
OK. No. Picturing your neighbor dying of a heart attack? Not nice. Hatred and anger, or even just a particularly venomous dislike, poison the one feeling them far more than the one to whom they are directed. So, what to do?
Turn, of course, to the passage from whence came the admonition to love your neighbor (Luke 10):
25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
26"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
Jesus rocks. Someone asks you a question? Ask them one back. Tells you way more than if you start talking right away.
27He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
It's no accident that "love your neighbor" comes second only to "love God." Nor that as yourself is included. How do I want to be treated? Kindly, lovingly, and by neighbors to whom my politics are anathema, with basic civility. What would I want someone to do if I went on a rant about politics? Rate my post, of course. But as I'm sure Barty would never come near this site with a ten-foot USB cable, and as I don't rant back at him anyway, I'll have to find a different way of interpreting this.
28"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
29But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Turnabout is fair play, the expert in the law figures. I'll ask him a question now. Surely he's not going to tell me I have to be neighbors with people I don't like.
30In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two silver coins[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'
So instead of answering the question directly, Jesus tells the man a story. Sometimes truth comes through narrative better than through exposition.
36"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
37The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
That last is, I think, my husband's favorite verse, and it's one of mine, too, though perhaps for slightly different reasons. You have a question? I have a question and a story. And another question, which, voila, you just answered yourself. You know what to do, even if you don't like it. So go do it.
I think I'm the expert in the law in this story, at least this time, and a conversation between Jesus and me would probably go much the way this one did. I'd keep wanting Jesus to tell me I don't have to deal with this guy whose beliefs and actions are repugnant to me, just as this man didn't want to deal with Samaritans, who were in his time by his people considered unclean.
I'm going to run into Barty again. I'm going to have a run-in with him again, probably. I can't change him, nor can I entirely avoid him. I can be civil, and merciful, and try to diffuse vitriol with kindness, and try not to take too much pleasure in heaping coals of fire on his head. His value in the eyes of God, or in the eyes of fellow humans more sympathetic to him, does not depend on how I see him. And that's a good thing.