The Wonder of My Neighbor

An infinitely complex manifestation of life

The past few articles have focused on the emotional aspect of our inner world. I’ve been sharing as I think through the challenges that we may face with anger, and the navigation of emotions in general. However, people are much more than even their most complex emotions let on.

As a tap dancer, and an improviser, I have had a practice that has explicitly connected my thinking and feeling with a physical expression. I’m sensitive to the deep connection between my thoughts, feelings, and body. My practice has also given me ample room to work through how a desire (something I want to have happen) comes to life or not by way of my will (my ability to make a choice). Then there is the added complexity of how the personalities of those around me, and across generations, affect my being. How the momentum of human organization in the geography that I live in has shaped me. That’s not to mention the larger imposition the environments I am in, the activities I find myself in, and the experiences I go through, have on who I am continually becoming.

I’m not so interested in working out the thinking behind all the different parts of the human being here. There are many thinkers and writers who have endeavored to do that and done it well. I have benefited particularly from the work of Dallas Willard and his thinking on this topic. Here, and with this complexity in mind, I am more interested in thinking about how I respond when I encounter another human being – my neighbors.

My encounters with others seem to land on a kind of spectrum. On one side there is the “I need to get this done, and I need you to do something for me in order for that to happen,” transactional interaction. On the other side there is the “Wow, you are an amazing human being, I am in awe of all that might be going on with you and in you, and I just want to sit here and bear witness to that for a moment…” kind of transcendent interaction. Of course, these encounters can be shaped by the context, but I find that the spectrum still holds true.

As it is, much of my life is spent somewhere in the middle of this spectrum with people. Too much time on the transactional side and people become tools for the accomplishment of goals. Too much time on the transcendent side and the reality of our physical life drifts away. So, I’ve been thinking about what living a present life, in the current physical reality, while bearing witness to the wonder of our inner worlds in all their complexity, might look like.

This brings to mind an earlier article I wrote about flipping Maslow’s Triangle. The idea of prioritizing transcendence, the wonder of God, and the spiritual nature of our fellow human beings should not in any way devalue our physical existence – the need for food, shelter, and clothing for instance. I think it should amplify it. How much more would we care for our neighbor if we saw them first as a miraculously complex manifestation of life? In this light, what would our approach to them be like if we needed to borrow their tools, or a cooking ingredient?

I’ve experienced so many instances in my life in which my work and interactions carried a kind of unbearable weight. I think it was often because I approached my work as the only place for transcendent experiences and interactions. It was the only place I found myself really with others (other than my family), and so it carried the burden of both accomplishment and spiritual fulfillment. No job, or single interaction, can carry that weight. I think about the rejection I have felt when an audience doesn’t like my work. That rejection is heightened if I think that their response is a reflection of their acceptance of me. When an audience doesn’t like my work equals “they don’t like my offering of love and care,” it easily can turn into, “they have rejected me.” The performing arts admittedly is a unique case, but similar interactions happen throughout our lives. When a child offers a work of art, or when a neighbor offers an invitation to a meal for instance. A similarly tragedy can ensue when requests for help are denied. The rejection can form an idea that “no one cares about what I’m trying to do,” or deeper still, “no one loves me.” This doesn’t need to be the case.

Of course, our jobs, and the way we interact with people are expressions of our character and will be infused with the excesses of what is in us – for good or evil. However, the things we set our hands to and our interactions with people are vehicles for something much more important. That is the opportunity to be WITH one another (and with God) as we live. We bear witness, reflect upon, are inspired by, and speak into one another’s lives. The more time we spend with one another, the closer we may grow. The closer the relationship, the more likely we are to realize our interconnectedness.

Some common thinking here will be to disconnect and separate areas of our life, and our life with others, to more specifically understand how each works independently, our own options, and goals within each. How does the economy work, and what does my success in that area look like? How does spirituality work, and what does my growth in that area look like? How does interpersonal relationship work, and what does my success in that area look like?

The truth of the matter is that every area of life is entangled with every other area. Without the ability to separate them, an ordering of priority is important. What should we take care of first? Trusting that if we care for one area first, every other area will fall into an appropriate place. I’ve written briefly about this idea here (although it seems it might be itching for greater attention!). I think about this idea of prioritization as it impacts the way I approach people. If my greatest concern is economic, most of my relationships look like economic transactions. If my greatest concern is spiritual, most of my relationships focus on the spiritual aspects of life. If, however, in the midst of a necessary economic transaction, my mind retains a primary focus on the spiritual aspect of things, the wonder of the complex being that stands before me, that economic transaction may transform.

This whole idea, as it happens, is hard to get going with on an individual basis. We can’t do it alone. There is a lot of momentum that will push us in the opposite direction of recognizing with awe and wonder our neighbor. But someone must start. For the hope of transformation in ourselves (our closest neighbor) and those we encounter (all our other neighbors), someone has to be the first to say, “Stop, wait a moment. Let me just look at you. Has anyone told you how full of wonder you are?”

Even if it isn’t out loud (because that could be awkward, especially with strangers). What if we gave our hearts and minds the time and space to approach our neighbors with a predisposition of wonder? This questions makes me think about the what the world might be if this tiny idea took hold.