The Lord commanded us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We were told that all the law is based on these two commandments. But, there is another law everyone ought to equally obey, and that is, Thou shalt talk to thy neighbor.
This past Sunday, I was strolling my son around our little neighborhood, and, having successfully seen no one along the way, I was turning the corner for home when I caught sight of my neighbor working on his truck. Instantly a sense of discomfort shot through me like a syringe of icy saline, for I noticed that he noticed me and was prepared – against all common decency and unspoken mores – to stop and talk to me.
I am not shy. I do not find talking to people difficult – I am a journalist after all. But when it comes to talking to neighbors, I get queasy in my stomach, like I am a little boy talking with a new old uncle. Why is this?
One reason might be that, just like the old uncle, the neighbor knows a little (or a lot) about me, even though he hasn’t met me, unlike a complete stranger on a bus or at a grocery store, who knows no more of me than Adam. There is a loss of privacy with our neighbor, which makes talking a little awkward, since we think we know something about each other already, and we know they know something about us. We observe our neighbors closely – it is something of a habit or hobby of mine, though I seldom if ever talk to them. When we do, though, we learn that no amount of observation prepares us for what we might learn in a five minute chat on the street.
I learned of my neighbor what I could not possibly discover by observation – or on Halloween. I learned his name, for starters, his age, and that he was retired from the Navy, just like me! He was a medical deep sea diver. And just watch “Men of Honor” to get an idea of how awesome Navy divers are – a lot more awesome than Navy journalists, let me tell you. I also learned that he was a truck driver, and had moved to the area because his daughter wanted him and his wife to move to the area. He met his wife in the Navy, and she was a medical corpsman, too. He lived in the deep south, Mississippi if I recall correctly, but you couldn’t tell it by his accent. I learned these things, and so many more unconscious or nonverbal things about my neighbor which make up a general outline of his character.
And he learned from me that I was medically retired from the Navy with kidney disease and that I am a reporter and photographer for The Southern, and perhaps a good deal about my character. Though this exchange only lasted a few minutes, the transaction of biographical and psychological information paid off. I feel more neighborly now, and look forward to the next time I see him out and about, so I can wish him a happy day by his first name.
I know that avoiding neighbors isn’t just some idiosyncrasy of mine, for the simple reason that none but a few of my neighbors have stopped to say hello and introduce themselves. One did so only to ask when the cable was going to be installed; another to see about a fence install. Usually, Trick-or-Treat night gives us the opportunity to get to know our neighbors better. But this past year, almost no one was passing out candy in our neighborhood, and the ones we talked to who were were dressed up as bloody clowns, so we really couldn’t get a sense of them.
Many think the Greatest Commandment means giving food or shelter to the poor, which it does, of course. But perhaps there is more to the Law of Love than satisfying our neighbor’s bodily needs. Maybe we are called to get to know our neighbor, too, to take a few minutes out of our busy lives to acknowledge the existence of our fellow human beings and take some interest in their lives as well.
Come to think of it, can one even love God or our neighbor if we don’t talk to either of them?