The Clinical (And Political) Power of Neighborhoods
We cannot survive only on big, vague associations for meaning. We need our neighbors, too.
Americans are barreling through another election cycle, but not without seismic trepidation. Although we’ve already splattered plenty of ink trying to account for the present state of our politics, hostility tightens its grip on the collective psyche.
On September 25, 2020, The Dallas Morning News published a story documenting a particular suburban street north of the city. The article begins, “Here among the manicured lawns and scenes of suburban serenity, two neighbors wage a war of words. They have barely spoken to each other. They’re letting their signs do the talking.”
Leading up to that heated 2020 election, political signs of different tribes sprouted up in lawns along the street. At first, neighboring households stuck to the traditional red, white, and blue posters touting their candidates' names. But as tempers flared, the store-bought signs proved insufficient. Instead, large homemade signs seeped into the mix, blazoned with large arrows pointing to a neighbor’s home with the words Traitors and Disrespecting U.S. Flag. Vandalism ensued. A local observer lamented, “I think we live in ‘Crazy Town’ right now."
We forget that our political system assumes uncertainty.
But I need to hover for a moment on this word: Political. Referencing only the public statements of actual politicians today, one might conclude that political means something akin to partisan or biased. We dismiss opponents’ behaviors as political, assuming they are jockeying for power at the cost of good faith. But we forget that our political system assumes uncertainty. It assumes that no one person or party will hold all the answers. Its task is to accommodate raging contradictions among peoples. Famed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt even highlights that these contradictions are necessary to a rich social order. All of this is why Emory University's Noel McAffee asserts that to be political is this: to collectively decide what to do in the face of uncertainty. So how do we do this…peacefully?
Neighborhoods as Mediators
Public life, we must consider, functions along three axes. First, individuals carry on with unique beliefs, convictions, impulses, and desires. On the other hand, these individuals define themselves by affiliating with massive, albeit abstract, collectives like political parties. There is an individual axis and a collective one.
But alone these two only provide flimsy meaning. We plaster our mass affiliations on bumpers and Twitter feeds where they escape scrutiny. But they ring hollow, probably because they are not very integrating. Because they resist challenge, they rarely mature to full authenticity. And because they are not particularly authentic, they are not particularly meaningful. They require the added dimension of that crucial third axis of public life. That third axis is a mediator. It solidifies the social bonds and community empathy necessary to flesh out the relationships between individuals and their abstract collectives. That third axis is neighborhood.
We cannot survive only on big, vague associations for meaning. We need neighbors, too. These are the real-life people who agree and disagree with us, affirm us and challenge us. The masses do not sharpen us; the people around us do.
The masses do not sharpen us; the people around us do.
My favorite description of a neighbor comes from G. K. Chesterton. I paraphrase him when I write this: We choose our friends; we choose our enemies; but God chooses our neighbors. Hence they come to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; they are strange as the stars. But we have to love our neighbors simply because they are there. They are the sample of humanity which has been given to us. And to do so is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive.
Of course, there are many other sources to which one can turn when defining a neighbor. "Who is my neighbor?" asks the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke. The famed parable that follows does not even speak of local proximity. In fact, the neighbors of the story are cultural enemies. A neighbor is he or she who has mercy. "Go and do likewise," Jesus implores.
Two Elements of “Neighboring”
From all this, two elements of neighboring come to the fore. The first is this: Neighboring is an accidental enterprise. Human spontaneity demands that even the most carefully selected associates will be strangers to us some days. Our communities, chosen or unchosen, bring with them an unexpectedness that presents us with a choice. We can respond to the surprises with a retreat into our own individualism; that is, an individualism outsourced to some abstract affiliations. Or we can cling to the neighbor in such a way that pursues the adventure. Second, neighboring is active. We become neighbors when we pursue those outside our readily available affiliations. Jesus’ parable teaches that a neighborhood is the result of “going and doing likewise.” So, we neighbor when we actively pursue social accidents.
But local interactions are woefully malnourished these days. If we want to inject more neighborliness in our shared political lives, we rely on local institutions like mental health clinics, churches, and schools. All three of these institutions hold undeniable influence over the interpersonal behaviors people carry into their neighborhoods. They (1) help persons identify and articulate their own convictions, (2) integrate those persons into meaningful relationships that both affirm and challenge, and (3) inject those relationships with the resiliency needed to weather rigorous collaborations—collectively deciding what to do in the face of uncertainty.
I am a psychologist at The Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology in Dallas, Texas. Here we promote all three of these, particularly as part of programming we affectionately call OLOGY (as in psychology and theology). OLOGY brings together representatives from each of these local institutions: education, mental health care, and faith. We do so to bring real-life helpers of different opinions, backgrounds, and affiliations shoulder-to-shoulder for training, discussion, and collaboration. We do so to actively pursue accidents. We do so to promote neighborliness.
In fact, we have an event coming up in January 2023. We invite you to join in the adventure.
This season, support the work of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, which provides resources like the Spiritual First Aid course for pastors, church leaders, and laypersons.
Nathaniel R. Strenger, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and the Director of Clinical Advancement at The Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology in Dallas, Texas. He provides a variety of clinical services, supervises training therapists, and develops continuing education opportunities for clinicians and the broader public alike. As part of his studies and professional background, he has taught, lead workshops, and written on topics ranging from trauma, spirituality across the lifespan and the practice of psychology, emotional regulation in children, teens, and adults, community coordination in care, parenting concerns, and clergy family issues.