Who is my neighbor?

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In the wake of the tragic bombings in Boston, I was moved, as were so many others, by the outpouring of support that fellow Bostonians, MA residents, and visitors offered to each other. From those who immediately ran towards the carnage to help the wounded to those who offered their homes as a space of refuge to the displaced and hurting, the best side of humanity emerged in the wake of the violent exhibition of its worst side.

I’d been debating about whether to go up to the daily mass on my campus and then I received an email informing the community that the mass would be focused around praying for those harmed in Boston. Well, that settles it, I thought, I’m going to go. Right below the email about the mass time, however, was a forwarded email from a friend who had just learned that the academic job he’d interviewed for had been given to someone else. With the higher ed market as it was, this might well spell the end of a career in academe. Now, obviously, there’s no comparison here: losing your life or your child or your legs to a bomb is infinitely worse than not getting the job you want. Apples to oranges, mountains to molehills. At the same time, I knew that my friend was hurting and that I could give him something that I couldn’t give to those in Boston (which is relatively far from where I live): direct, personal support. Should I go to mass or should I call and comfort him?

I’ll call him after mass, I thought. Mass will help me focus on the victims of the bombing and will strengthen me to be a help to my friend. I got dressed quickly and started putting on makeup, since I’d need to head out the door soon in order to make it on time. But then my phone lit up and I saw that it was my friend. Well, I’ll talk to him briefly—just to make sure he’s okay—and then I’ll tell him that I’ll call him back after mass. And that was the plan through the first fifteen minutes of the conversation: I’d just tell him that I’d call back in an hour. After all, he didn’t seem dangerously upset. I kept waiting for the opportune moment in the conversation to slip out of it, but it didn’t seem to come. When I finally felt it did, I realized that I was already super-late for mass. And so I stayed on the phone and I talked to my friend and I offered him what support and understanding I could. He was discouraged, but we were also able to share a few laughs. We were able to remember why we were friends.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus emphasizes that our “neighbors” are not just our friends, not just those who live near us, think like us, or look like us. Our neighbor is also the stranger. Our neighbor is even our enemy. It is a lesson that we must keep re-learning since it is a lesson so easily forgotten or ignored. However, it’s also worth remembering that our neighbors are also our friends, our loved ones, and our actual neighbors in the apartment or house next door. Sometimes they are the ones who both need a helping hand and who are close by enough that we can extend one. At the heart of both the Parable of the Good Samaritan and our more quotidian experiences of community is the truth of the person’s existence as a fundamentally social being. As the Catechism says

The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation. (Paragraph1879)

It’s a mistake to think that we only need to serve those to whom we have a personal connection. However, we must also guard against an overly abstract ethics that only thinks of charity as something that we extend to those who are far away or completely devastated. Heroism and disinterested charity are, of course, absolutely powerful witnesses to the beautiful and the good. But charity must also be a daily practice that happens where we are and with the people we see and talk to every day.

Like so many others, I will say a prayer for Boston today. Today is the “standard day” for praying the Sorrowful Mysteries on the rosary, and it certainly seems appropriate. But I was wrong to think that I must choose between focusing on my friend or focusing on those affected by the bombing in Boston. They are all my neighbors. When my friend called me, I had to give my attention to him in that moment for as long as he needed it. Now, as the pictures coming out of Boston carry the deep suffering of so many into my home and into my mind, I know that I can never give to to them the attention and comfort they deserve. I know that I can’t even offer them the personal support that I offered to my friend. But, nonetheless, I must turn towards them and do what I can in the way of prayer and support, for they are also my neighbor.

Today, please pray for those in Boston and please consider making a donation to the Red Cross. But also remember to help and support the neighbors that are right beside you: your family members, your co-workers, and your friends.

Hail Mary, full of grace

The Lord is with you

Blessed art thou among women

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus

Holy Mary, mother of God,

Pray  for us sinners now

And at the hour of our death.

Amen.

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