I was talking with some friends last night who have recently moved house. Their old pad was basically one room in a long block with a shared verandah, and now they have a whole flat at the top of an apartment block. I thought it was interesting that they both talked about missing the old room, even though it was a tiny living space by normal Australian standards. What they miss is the low-level interaction with people throughout the day. The old set up allowed for brief and casual conversation and interaction, and the ability to easily control the level of engagement with their neighbours. Living in a more conventional apartment setting means that the constant low-level interaction has changed. Now, an encounter with other people (who are fellow Bible College students) also comes with a whole bunch of ‘intention-to-relate’ baggage. It raises the stakes in the encounter.Truman Show

I wonder if this hasn’t been happening wholesale throughout our society. Smaller communities tend to create more of that low-level interaction: we see the same people doing their thing, while we’re doing ours, no significant exchange involved. There is very little ‘intention-to-relate’, the reason for our encounter might be merely physical proximity, common labour, satisfying the same need/desire. And yet, just because these are low-level interactions doesn’t mean they don’t contribute to an ongoing and developing sense of relatedness.

Every time a person nods at you in the street and says ‘hello’, they are affirming that you exist as ‘you-in-particular’. This is an acknowledgement that artifactual objects cannot provide. A non-personal object can, at very best, only affirm that you exist in general. Which is probably why I find it so disconcerting to try and walk through an automatic door and to have it not open for me. Architects should be careful with those things, they can provoke generalised existential angst. “Am I still here?”

It strikes me that personal relationships are the satellites by which we triangulate our identity – along the lines of a GPS system. When the system is working well, we gain a sense of who we are from the people around us, and that is a comforting and joyous thing.
It can give you the strength to overcome being invisible to a door.

3 thoughts on “Neighbours

  1. Hmmm. You now have comments from James and John…

    Thanks for writing down your thoughts on this one Dan. It makes sense of something I’ve witnessed personally. My dear wife finds living in this (relatively small) city quite difficult at times. I’ve always struggled to understand since the thing that seems to give the most difficulty is the frequency of visitors. Yet, when reminiscing about her small country town, she talks up the fact that everyone knew each other and were involved in the community. This seemed a contradiction to me: we have more interaction here in the ‘city’ than we would in the country. I think your theory makes sense of it.

    In the small country town there are lots of low-level interactions. You can be friendly without people expecting to be your Friend. In the ‘city’ however, if you show the same level of general friendliness, people appreciate it but, as you say, the stakes are higher. If you are friendly, then you get that ‘intention-to-relate’ baggage. And it’s really stressful, because you end up with a large bunch of people who expect to be your close friends and take up large chunks of your time. But there’s only so many hours in a week that can be filled with relating.

    This leads to the terrible situation where I’m afraid to even be friendly with newcomers at church because I run the risk of making another ‘friend’. I can’t fit any more friends into my week–it’s just not physically possible. Yet, on the other hand, not being friendly and welcoming is anathema to everything we are taught about being Good Christians. And, yes, I definitely want people to feel welcome at my church. I’m stuck.


  2. it certainly is getting very apostolic…
    I think you're right in your application to Church. There is something very unnatural, and consequently, forced, about the way we expect each other to relate at Church. Yet we know in our bones that relating correctly to each other is central to the meaning of Church.


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