There has been a push happening for awhile now. For many, the perpetuation of isolated people, anonymously living their lives next door to one another needs to end. This push back into the neighborhood has come due to the cultural insistence on privacy, individualism, and overall autonomy (among others). Where estrangement has flourished, many are seeking to replace it with intimacy and interconnectedness.
Over the past several years, I have wondered if our tendencies toward isolation and individualism stem from fear not hatred. I say fear because for the most part, I don’t find too many who actually hate their neighbor. If they do, it seems this hatred is an outcome of fear. In other words, they hate because they fear, not the other way around.
Fear of our norm being interrupted. Fear of having to be vulnerable. Fear of the unknown. Fear of finding an unknown ally. The list goes on.
Fear is an interesting thing. Many of our fears are steeped in cultural stories; things we have deemed the normative “big” things to be fearful of. Thieves, rapists, car accidents, muggings, and the like plague and dominate our imaginations. Perhaps we have become a culture marked by fear because we are primarily marketed at in fear. Oddly enough, studies have shown that crime rates have actually declined, yet the reporting of crime has steeply ascended. This paradox has given credence to our efforts in self-protection while allowing us to remain hostile towards others.
As Nouwen says, “In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it.” It seems we have allowed our fears of the “big” things to permeate our views of the neighbor, coworker, and stranger featured in our everyday occurrences. This isn’t necessarily a cognizant reaction, yet when our imaginations are shaped by stories of threat and danger carried out by strangers, it is easy to carry these attitudes and practices over into our neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places.
In response, then, we build walls – be they literal or figurative – keeping hostile others out and ourselves in.
Yet, many of us might not believe we live in fear of others. There is no visceral emotion or attitude showing itself as fear. At first glance this may seem true, but taking a look at the actual practices we employ, it doesn’t take long to realize how embedded fear actually is.
There are three aspects of fear I want to point out in particular. Three points that often go unnoticed, but are vital. Vital because if Jesus tells us and shows us how to love our neighbors – and even our enemies – we need to be reflective and aware of how we might be replacing love with fear. Real life is a life of love, not fear; after all, perfect love casts out fear.
1. Fear does not only separate us from others, it allows us to dissect others.
Fear gives us a myopic vision of others where we cut up people into atomized versions of themselves. Rather than seeing others holistically, we pinpoint the qualities we deem necessary to fear them. We don’t see others with both their gifts and problems; we tend to selectively view them for their delinquencies and ills.
Our coworker isn’t a gifted teacher; in fear, she is primarily a gossip. The neighbor across the street isn’t a gracious gardener; in fear, he is the loudmouth who lets everyone know he was out late every Friday night. A spouse isn’t a partner and lover; in fear, he is a prideful manipulator waiting for you to mess up.
In short, fear gets us off the hook of lovingly seeing and participating with whole people. Permission is given to divide them up into the good, bad and ugly while living as if the bad and ugly exist alone. We do this because if others are essentially their most deviant selves – their problems/deficiencies – we don’t have to love them. They are a danger and must be kept at an arm’s length, at best.
In fact, I wonder if we don’t dissect others out of fear of finding ourselves in them. If we can keep the dividing lines alive and well through atomization, there will always be the “us” and “them”, not the “we”. Fear enables us to reject any possibility of finding a like-minded brother or sister. After all, who wants to find a brother and sister in a supposed stranger?
I have seen this over and over again – especially within myself – with those I’m most familiar with. It does happen with the actual stranger, but more often than not, it happens within the relationships that effect my everyday. Focus must be brought to the daily, mundane, humdrum of life for that is where we actually exist.
2. Fear does not only allow us to dissect others, it allows us to blindly deny our own complicity in ugliness and evil.
Fear permits us to lay the blame at the feet of others as we walk away innocent. It allows us to play the victim card in a world full of agitators and thugs. The problems of the neighborhood, workplace, and family are not our own, they are the product of and responsibility of others.
As long as the ailments of our world can be found in others, we will not be accountable for fixing them. Those who need correction are those who are not us. Expectations can be projected across the street or over the cubicle wall as long as they don’t reverberate back on us. Peter Block talks of projection and accountability in his brilliant book Community: The Structure of Belonging
Projection denies the fact that my view of the ‘other’ is my creation, and this is especially true with how we view our communities and the people in them. Most simply, how I view the other is an extension of being accountable. To be accountable is to act as an owner and creator of what exists in the world, including the light and dark corners of my own existence. It is the willingness to focus on what we can do in the face of whatever the world presents to us. Accountability does not project or deny; accountability is the willingness to see the whole picture that resides within, even what is not so pretty. (p 57)
3. Fear does not only keep us from being accountable, it allows for the continuation of the status quo.
If you are like me, you have plenty of grandiose ideas. The problem becomes when they interrupt the established rhythms I’ve created over the years. Behind these walls I’ve built between myself and others lies my comfortable, personal world which has taken years to establish.
This world is full of preoccupations keeping me distant from my neighbors. Nouwen states,
Preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same, and it often seems that we prefer a bad certainty to a good uncertainty. (Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 74)
For many of us, myself included, it is this fear of the unknown, the uncertain, which keeps us holed up in isolation. Our neighbors might interrupt our entertainment plans in front of our big screens; our hurting coworker might stop my efficiency and money producing; my child might steal my sleep.
Rather than reaching out in love, we hide away in fear of our precious timelines, agendas, and show times. The way to change is pushing through these self-imposed comforts and to allow revolutionary breakthroughs to emerge.
So, I ask, how has fear taken root in your life? Are you dissecting others? Have you turned a blind eye to your own ugliness? Do you protect your status quo at all costs?
Or am I way off base? Is it hatred – or something else – not fear?
I’d love to hear your story.
Image: Johnnie Swearingen (Brenham, TX). Neighbors, 1989. (Source)