An obituary for the world: A death in the neighborhood

Melinda said on Facebook last week that she intended to go on for a good long time, taking precautions against catching something but going ahead with her life. That time was far too short.

By Nyttend - Own work, Public Domain,

NATCHITOCHES, La., May 21, 2017 ⏤ Melinda and her husband have been our neighbors across the street for over 20 years. She was diagnosed with AML (Acute Myelogenous Leukemia) two months ago, and she died today.

If you aren’t from Natchitoches, you would have never heard of her, but she wasn’t just our neighbor; she was your neighbor, too. You just didn’t have a chance to meet her. You would have liked her. She was kind and adored her husband. And she loved her neighbors.

Luke 10 contains one of the best-known New Testament parables, and it’s about neighbors. It starts with a question to Jesus from a legal hair splitter:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In common usage, a neighbor is a person who lives near us. We understand “near” in geographic terms: the property abutting my own, or across the street from mine. Our neighbors are the people who live in the houses closest to ours, or on our block, or who are members of our homeowners’ association. In that sense, Melinda was my neighbor, not yours.

But Jesus didn’t care about geography. Responding to the legal expert, Jesus told a story about a man who was beset by robbers on the road who beat him and left him for dead. Two solid citizens walked by and refused to see him, but a third man, a Samaritan, whom the Jews would consider unclean, stopped, bound his wounds, took him to an inn and paid for his care.

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

The priest and the Levite who ignored the man in need felt no proximity to him. He wasn’t a friend or family member. He didn’t live next door. They felt no emotional or human bond with him, no connection.

The Samaritan felt that bond. The man on the road was a stranger to him, but he felt emotional proximity to a fellow human in pain and need. He recognized him as a neighbor.

Mr. Rogers used to ask:

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?”

He wasn’t inviting you to move in next door. He understood neighbors in the expanded sense that Jesus saw them, people bound by webs of compassion and mutual concern, regardless of personal acquaintance or physical proximity. Emotional proximity, spiritual proximity, and human proximity make all of us neighbors if we’ll just let each other in.

John Donne saw it the same way and said it differently:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

If not as islands, many of us think of ourselves as archipelagos. We have friends and acquaintances spread across the country and around the world. We claim as friends people we’ve never met. We often don’t know the people next door, and we don’t think of them as “neighbors.”

Our neighbors are scattered around the globe, but we feel no proximity to the people we see and try to ignore when we walk the dog. What used to be our neighborhood is now just part of the ocean that divides us from the other bits of our archipelago.

That, anyway, is the way we often see it. We go out with our headphones firmly in place to warn others away and help us avoid interacting with the stranger next door or in the next seat on the airplane. We deny ourselves the pleasure of meeting the Melindas who live all around us for fear of meeting a Trump voter or someone who’s with Hillary or a sociopath.

Fear is bad for the formation of neighborhoods.

My wife last saw Melinda a few days ago, out walking her dog with her husband, wearing a mask to avoid the risk of infection. Infection is a huge threat to people with AML. But Melinda said on Facebook last week that she intended to go on for a good long time, taking precautions against catching something but going ahead with her life.

A good long time turned out to be fleetingly brief. But so is a good long life. Neighbors don’t last long, even if they live next door for 60 years. We should treasure them while we have them, and we should get to know as many of them as we can.

My neighborhood is a diminished place for Melinda’s death, but it’s richer for her having been in it. Yours is diminished too⏤you’ve lost the chance to know a good and beautiful woman⏤but also richer, because she made her piece of it better than it would have been without her.

Any person’s death diminishes us, but that’s a necessary payment for the chance we have to know them. I’m sorry for the pain Melinda’s husband and close family are feeling now, but they aren’t an island, and when they’re ready, their neighbors are ready to lift them up.

If you can’t be there for them, you can be there for the neighbors you know. All goodness pays forward to everyone, because we’re a continent, and mercy makes us neighbors.

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