Like a Good Neighbor

Imagine you’re raising a family in a little suburban home, with a well-to-do neighbor on either side. (Some of you may not have to imagine, but you can still play along.)

The neighbor on the left is sophisticated and amiable and smiles a lot. He often talks about having you over for dinner, and he always tells you to call if you need anything. He speaks softly to your kids and tells them jokes; he usually gives them five bucks when he sees them, and he’s been known to pass you a $20 bill when you said that times were tough.

The neighbor on the right is far less agreeable. He’s overbearing and abrasive, often interrupts, and mostly talks about himself. He refuses to admit when he’s wrong, brags constantly, and exaggerates his own success. He swears in front of your kids, he puts other people down, and he’s rude to anyone who doesn’t like him. When you tell him that times are tough, he just shakes his head and says, “Sad!”

Which neighbor would you prefer?

If given the choice, I doubt any of us would want to live next to the second man. Why would we? The first one is nice and the second one’s a jerk – at least based on the descriptions I gave.

But there’s more to the story.

Everything I said about both men relates to how they communicate, not to the kind of experience you’ll necessarily have living next to them. There are other things to consider when evaluating a neighbor than how he talks to you. And there are things I haven’t told you about our imaginary neighbors.

The neighbor on the left is always renovating his property, which has been known to cause damage to your own. It’s also knocked out the electricity before – though not for him, since he has a backup generator. It also means several days of disturbing noise while he’s away at his lake house. Speaking of noise, his kids often throw raucous parties, which have resulted in sleepless nights, drunken teenagers on your porch, and bottle rockets through your upstairs window. Unfortunately, the police never do anything about it, because your neighbor’s oldest son works for the department. And whenever you try talking to him, he loses his temper and calls you names. Moreover, there are well-founded rumors that he runs a child pornography operation in his basement; and many of his regular visitors have wound up in prison for a variety of reasons. Oh, and every time you ask him for the help he so graciously offers, he makes excuses. And he never gets around to that dinner invitation.

The neighbor on the right is a different story. He likes to renovate his house too, and he’s often away when it happens. But he always pops in ahead of time to make arrangements, and he’s adamant that things be done with care. If there are inconveniences – and there almost never are – he’s quick to make things right. He hosts some interesting social events as well, but it’s usually respectable. Once or twice, he’s even broken ties with unsavory characters who ended up on the wrong side of the law. He checks in on you from time to time, and he offers advice when he can – even if it’s not always helpful). He’s chewed out other neighbors (including the guy on the other side) for gossiping about you or giving you a hard time. He once called you on vacation to verify that your house-sitter was supposed to be there. And when he finds out times are tough, he usually finds a way to help – by recommending alternatives to the services you’re getting; by giving you a good job reference; or by working out some kind of loan or financial deal that will benefit you in the long run. There was even one time when he watched your kids in an emergency.

So let me ask again: which neighbor would you prefer?

The friendly creep who occasionally throws money at you? Or the loudmouth who actually makes your life easier?

The guy on the left? Or the guy on the right?

To some extent, I can disapprove of both. I don’t want a neighbor who sets a bad example for my kids or disrespects anyone he doesn’t get along with. I don’t want to hear the profanity, the insults, or the bloviating arrogance from my neighbor on the right. If I lived next door to him, I would probably avoid conversation as much as possible. But how can I compare a foul mouth, inflated ego, and lack of manners to what’s happening on the left?

Over there, my neighbor shows no regard for me, my family, or my property. He openly flouts the law, and he enables – perhaps even participates – in child abuse. For all of his superficial civility, empty gestures, and hollow promises, he’s a whole lot worse than the other guy… and it’s not even close. How miserable and shallow would I be to equate the two? My neighbor on the right may deserve a good slap in the face; but the one on the left should be in prison.

Again, I don’t have to like the behavior from either side. But if I think being obnoxious is worse than – or even comparable to – being a criminal lowlife, there’s something wrong with me. It’s perfectly reasonable to draw surface-level conclusions about people we’ve just met, but we can’t always judge a book by its cover. There’s more to people than first impressions, whatever else we may have been told. Sure, behavior is important – very important – but we can’t put style over substance.

In the Gospel of Matthew (21:28-30), Jesus tells of two sons: one who agreed to obey his father but didn’t; and one who denied his father’s instructions, but afterward obeyed. The moral of the story, as he confirms, is that it’s better to say the wrong thing and do good than say the right thing and do evil.

Of course, it would be better to say and do. But that’s not the point. If someone steals my wallet, I can obviously criticize him; that doesn’t mean he’s as bad as the guy who steals my wallet and kills my mother. The uncouth neighbor may be “bad” in some sense, but I’ll take him any day of the week over the dangerous and perverse man on the left. To equate one with the other would make me as big a dirtbag as either of them.

Actions speak louder than words. We’re not called to judge our neighbors’ hearts or intentions except insofar as we can determine their character by their actions. Good manners play a role in that, obviously, but it’s not the leading role. It’s much better to form a right opinion of someone based on how well they do their job than on how well they act. The guy on the right does a better job – in this case, as a neighbor – so he’s the better neighbor, period. In fact, he’s a better neighbor than most… even if I don’t like talking to him.

Now, I’m not saying this is a perfect representation of anyone or anything we’ve seen in recent months… or years… or elections. But I think it’s a fair analogy.

Some would disagree. They would rather live next to someone who gives no thought to the neighborhood, hurts and neglects others, but hands out money and empty platitudes – so long as he doesn’t offend their modern sensibilities.

For my part, I would prefer the neighbor who treats me well, helps out in meaningful ways, and generally sticks to his word. Sure, he talks too much and lacks decorum, but at least I know what he’s thinking; and if we’re being honest, most people say far worse.

It used to be considered narrow-minded and pompous to look down on others who might not be as civilized or classy as the rest of us. But apparently, this is now acceptable – so long as we don’t like them.

We would be much better off judging people – which we all do, in order to form opinions and build relationships – not by what they say, but by what they do.

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