So the motto of the old show and the title of the new documentary both go. Seems harmless enough, but few consider just how dangerous it is to make that rash vow of YES to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood — how calmly he asserted himself into national conversations on race, poverty, tragedy, war, and divorce just like a good neighbor and not, it would seem, like the praxis of State Farm who’s only there if you paid your premium.
To say “yes, I will be your neighbor” or to say “yes, I commit to loving my neighbor” requires nothing short of a death wish. At first “death wish” seems a stark metaphor for mowing lawns and holding mail while your neighbors vacate the premises for Disney or Denmark. But such simple vow quickly grow into reality: that getting involved may well cost all you are, all you have.
And that nothing more beautiful exists in the world.
Without the latter part, you can see why the fear of the death wish — of public shame or attack-of-the-mob-mentality that could punish you for getting involved — scares a great many folk away from doing just that, especially the rich and the powerful and the popular and pleasure-and-thrill-seeking. We fear that the poverty and weakness and uncoolness and shame and pain will rub off on us. So we don’t get involved. And because we don’t get involved, we lose out on the most beautiful thing we could have:
Good neighbors in return.
You see there’s poor and then there’s poor in spirit. Many Americans fit the latter: they’re financially wealthy on the world stage, but they have a poverty in their soul that can only be fed by relationships with the poor. Their neighbors.
Won’t you be my neighbor?
…and the subsequent call to love your neighbor binds us on the level of the vow. It takes work: a ruthless (in regard to one’s self) allegiance to the ruthful (in regard to one’s neighbor) vow. Practically, for us, this meant a lot of things. Saying “yes” to Mr. Rogers in New York and Joplin meant:
1. We limited our choices.Especially in New York, everyone buys into the American lie that more choices = more freedom when it’s actually quite oppressive. What happens when we hop around to a different restaurant every time we want something new? Disjointed community, the erosion of loyalty, and the decay of natural intersections. Tara and I gave up our freedom to choose a new restaurant every chance we got to go out for a meal or a shopping trip. What we got in return was the names of the staff, their families, and “regular” status.
2. We opened our home. Few people host complete strangers in their homes in Joplin. Even fewer host in New York. There’s a saying here: you live in the city, you sleep at home. To have someone host you in their home (1) without a specific theme and event planned out months in advance through the so-called “hospitality industry” and (2) with real plates rather than disposable for (3) a real, home-cooked meal is almost unheard of. Outside of a home group in our church community and outside of our own initiation, we’ve had maybe a half dozen people in four years invite us to their home for a non-special-event home cooked meal. It’s troublesome to open your home: people get to see your mess, your weakness, your nest. You have to keep small things on hand if you do it regularly like olives and nuts and fruit and tea. But what you get for that sacrifice is a steady haven for anyone and everyone in the city who’s craving a third place away from work and play where they can have a meal, a conversation, collaborate on a handmade project — all without paying a cover charge.
3. We planned to host. To hit on the above point a little harder, Tara’s amazing at planning and sometimes planning isn’t a specific skillset but rather a general skillset. In the boy scouts, they taught me to be prepared. That meant multitools and extra rations and a varied skillset that can be used to survive and orienteer and help. Tara applies this principle to the home: she loads up every grocery run on staples for hosting. There’s always a brick of cheese, always extra toilet paper, always tea and coffee and fresh fruit and crayons and paper and spare yarn and weird board games — basically anything we could use to make people feel welcome, safe, creative, and joyful. It costs a little extra, but in return we’ve seen half-hour conversations blossom into late night debates on the meaning of life and calls to act locally.
4. We memorized our neighbors names. I’m not administratively gifted, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try very hard to balance my checkbook, pay my taxes, and keep a months-out calendar and daily schedule. In the same way, though I can tell you if you got a haircut, I’m terrible with names. That’s no excuse: I still try to write them down and use little memorization tricks I learned for monologues and scripture and poetry and apply those tricks to remembering how I met you and what you’re like. We write down names, dates, important biographical tidbits, as well as physical and mental and spiritual needs.
5. We collaborate. I’ve said elsewhere that collaboration is how artists and entrepreneurs — culture makers — delegate. The problem is most people try to only collaborate when they’re riding coat tails. Very, very few use the money and influence and charisma they have to lift up the station of their less
fortunate neighbors. Have you ever collaborated with someone who doesn’t deserve it? Of course you can’t do this all the time — particularly in your main craft — but is it possible for you to include writers in a compilation you’re editing that otherwise wouldn’t get their name out there? What about giving up some nice yarn to a poorer knitter that could never afford it? What about rebuilding an engine with a neighbor kid who will slow the process down to a crawl? We owe a debt to our ancestors — to the being that’s donated to us as every contingent moment — and the easiest way to repay it is to use what skills and resources we have to lift up those who have none. Split a royalty. Share an invoice. Build a commons out of a local oil well or single source aquifer or abandoned warehouse.
Sure it’s a dangerous thing to say you’ll be a good neighbor. You could beggar yourself. You could end up weaker than anyone you’ve ever known. You could end up looking ugly by contracting some disease from a neighbor. You could be publicly humiliated. But doesn’t that describe the specific victories of many, many saints?
And what’s the reward?
Real, good neighbors. And real, beautiful love.
And real, true hope in a world gone to hell.
You might even find out they’re secretly cooler, richer, and more influential than you in ways you’ve never dreamed.