Lately I’ve been doing something that a lot of idealistic young people do. I’ve been thinking about what it means to live a good life. Sample questions include: am I a bad person? How can I contribute more than I consume? What’s the point of anything? Who is Harambe? And so on and so forth.
I’ve always had a desire to be at the center of things. It’s one of the reasons I moved to New York. I was desperate to put a finger on the heartbeat of humanity. I wanted to be in thick of it, to try to get to the heart of this thing we’re doing called being alive.
One of the great things about living in the city (I could go on for years about how much I love New York, but part of being a New Yorker is playing it cool at all times so I’ll refrain) is that it is difficult to feel numb.
I have always been terrified of a life spent commuting from car to cubicle to couch, devoid of any real relationship with reality. It is difficult to ignore poverty and homelessness when I am brutally confronted with their devastating effects on a daily basis. It is difficult to ostracize people and pretend they don’t exist when I live in one of the most diverse places on the planet .
“I used to want to travel the world,” a friend once told me. “Then I moved to Queens and realized the whole world is here.”
I need it to be difficult for me to ignore these realities, I need to have no choice but to experience the depths and widths of the world, because if I have a choice, personal comfort becomes the driving force of my life.
The first time I realized this was in high school. I was in the car with my dad telling him about my ideal night. It involved takeout Chines food, elastic waistbands, our couch, and The Godfather. What he said has stuck with me ever since.
“You sure like being comfortable don’t you?”
I sure do. My desire for comfort is the reason I refused to wear pants in high school (uniform pants do not have elastic waistbands). It’s the reason I coat my walls in Christmas lights and avoid introducing myself to people and am cowardly in almost every way.
I know that comfort isn’t the goal, but I long for it anyways. Living in a place like New York is helpful because it makes this comfort more difficult to attain. But not impossible.
One of the not-so-great things about living in the city is you learn just how much you can ignore. You can easily become desensitized to poverty and human suffering when you encounter it on every block, of every street, on every hour, of every day. You learn that you can walk by a man being strapped to a gurney and not be too concerned. That you can live in the most diverse neighborhood on the planet and still only speak to people who look like you. That there can be a bomb scare and your primary concern will be how it affects your commute. That you can make see a man lying on the ground, screaming for help and look away.
The comfort monster inside of me wants to feel superior because I am not hiding in the suburbs or obsessed with making money or able to hide from the reality of the world. But mostly I feel desolate. What good does this knowledge do me if it doesn’t change a thing?
Say what you will about the overall sketchiness of Westernized Christianity, the best part about my upbringing was how much it focused on my own insignificance. Over and over again I was told it was not about me. That I was here to serve. That I was not the center of anything. I still walk to this philosophical drumbeat—It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you—even though I have no idea what it really is.
I’ve been thinking about living a good life and because it is an election year, I’ve been thinking about voting and Democracy and what it means for that good life. The things that color how I perceive the election are the same things that color how I perceive the world and my place in it.
As I’ve read and discussed and bit my tongue until it bleeds in trying to make sense of this election, what’s emerged hasn’t been about candidates or republicans or democrats. It’s been about my neighbors.
That drumbeat that compels me to unravel myself from the center of the story is itself compelled by the most beautiful principle religion has ever gifted to us. Love your neighbor.
Simple. Aspirational. Impossible.
But the consequence of moving from carefree California to one of the most segregated states in the country to the most diverse place on earth is that all of my neighbors hate each other.
The people who inhabit my world are racists and people of color, homophobic church goers and the LGBT community, the affluent and the impoverished. They are feminists and complementarians, atheists and the devoutly religious. Sexists, victims, surivors, and attackers. Democrats and Republicans. Trump supporters and Sanders fanatics and Hillary devotees. Educated, ignorant, citizen, immigrant. Neighbor.
Who is my neighbor? The better question would be who isn’t my neighbor, or better still, who would I prefer not to count when I consider those I am supposed to respect and love and serve?
I was confused when I woke up one morning last week and saw that the current internet outrage was over Jimmy Fallon rumpling Trump’s hair because this “humanized” Trump. I find this interesting because I was unaware we were laboring under the illusion of an inhuman Trump.
My neighbor isn’t only the oppressed but the oppressor. The one percenters and the marginalized. I cannot stand for the oppressed by hating the oppressor, or fight for justice by Othering those who have made attacking the Other their constitutional right.
You know what feels comfortable? Separating myself from evil by making it faceless and inhuman. You know what is uncomfortable? Accepting that the face of evil is usually banal and average and looks disconcertingly similar to my own.
It’s no secret that I have a tendency toward intellectual paralysis. I write to exorcise this icy fear from my limbs, but the thawing is slow. One thing I’ve never doubted is the importance of voting. Participating in democracy if you have the opportunity to do so seems to me to be a bare minimum action in an attempt to live a good life.
And here’s where that drumbeat of my own insignificance becomes a hallelujah chorus. I am not a politician or influential person. My vote doesn’t count for much. What matters far more is how I treat my neighbors.
In politics it’s easy to slather people into masses and dissect them into rigid categories. In real life we interact with these people one on one and it’s far more difficult to generalize them into safe stereotypes.
It feels good and comfortable to say the problem is over there with those people. This is where the principle of neighbors is key. Because those people are actually my people, they are my neighbors, which means the problem isn’t over there with them. It’s over here. With me. What wonderful news then that it—whatever it is—is not about me.