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Peter Stockland: Neighbourly advice on changing lives

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  • January 11, 2020

During a pre-Christmas trip to Toronto, New York Times columnist David Brooks offered a small vignette that can provide us with a new year’s resolution but, more, a spiritual shift for life.

Brooks was part of a breakfast panel at the Toronto Regional Board of Trade offices. It was sponsored by the think tank Cardus (with whom I work) and followed the semi-annual Munk Debate held the night before at Roy Thomson Hall.

The early riser topic was supposed to continue the Munk event discussion on the crisis in, and future of, global capitalism. Instead, Brooks, his wife Anne Snyder Brooks and economist Arthur Brooks (no relation) tore up the instruction sheet. 

Under the guidance of TVO’s Steve Paikin, they ventured off onto their own conversational pilgrimage to find solutions for the political and cultural polarization crippling public (and in many ways private) life.

Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute and now a Harvard professor, was unabashed in directing the discussion toward love — its absence and its urgently needed recovery — as the key to regaining humane civic life. 

Anne Snyder, recently appointed editor of Cardus’ Comment magazine, found hope in efforts she’s seen to turn polemics about diversity into exchanges about the rejuvenation of shared space for difference, that is genuine pluralism. 

David Brooks referenced the Weave Project he’s involved in. It criss-crosses the U.S. cultivating unique examples of intense “local repair” going on underneath, and undeterred by, the looming national catastrophe.

As illustration, he recounted being in small-town America and encountering a woman serving as a crossing guard at the elementary school. He began chatting with her and asked what motivated her to offer her time to volunteer. The woman regarded him as if he’d just stepped off the set of Star Wars and said she had no time to volunteer. 

“I said, ‘Oh, you’re being paid for this?’ She said, ‘No, I do this to help the kids across the street.’ So, I asked what she was doing next. She said, ‘Well, on Thursdays, I serve food at the hospital.’ I said, ‘Then you do have time to volunteer?’ She said, ‘No, I have no time to volunteer.’ She just considered what she was doing as being a good neighbour. At the national level, we look pretty diseased. But the hope for me is that at local level, we look pretty repairing,” he said. 

The point of the story is not, in any way, to disparage volunteerism or the volunteer spirit. It is to elevate ordinary daily acts to the level of our essential obligation to God: to love our neighbours as we love Him. 

I don’t think the needed response is to run out and throw ourselves into an exhausting regime of upping our neighbour-loving score on the app we’ve just downloaded. Rather, it’s to transform the lives we already live into manifestations of God-honouring neighbourly love. 

It’s deciding, for example, to post one less Facebook or Instagram proof that Donald Trump is the Dark Prince Idiot Child/Light of the World Savant who will lead us to perdition/glory. It’s substituting the effort to, in the immortal words of the great old John Prine song, “say hello in there, hello” to someone who seems to need it. It’s channeling our inner Mr. Rogers rather than calling up our inner politico-socio-cultural tribal brand identifier. 

Fred Rogers, after all, became an ordained Presbyterian minister even as he built the TV career that shaped North American children for generations. Rogers understood the crucial need for regular nudges reminding us that, as Christ taught, everyone is our neighbour. He understood that asking “won’t you be my neighbour?” — tacitly in our acts if not explicitly in words — is key to sound civic life and, ultimately, to our primary spiritual calling.

We have never been perfect in answering that call, of course. But our faith does not demand the instant karma of easy perfection. It asks only that we start. And start again.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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