Where Have All the Neighbors Gone?

“Modern society acknowledges no neighbour.”​—Benjamin Disraeli, 19th-century English statesman.

AGING Cubans have a novel way of promoting well-being: neighborhood networks, or círculos de abuelos (grandparents’ groups), as they call them. According to a 1997 report, about 1 in 5 older Cubans belong to such groups, in which they find companionship, support, and practical assistance in maintaining a healthy life-style. “Whenever neighbourhood family physicians need help with a vaccination campaign,” notes the World-Health magazine, “the círculos de abuelos are where they find willing and able resources.”

Sadly, though, in many parts of the world, neighborhoods no longer have such caring communities. Consider, for example, the tragic case of Wolfgang Dircks, who lived in an apartment building in western Europe. Some years ago, The Canberra Times reported that although the 17 families who shared the same apartment building as Wolfgang had noticed his absence, “no-one thought to ring his bell.” When the landlord finally turned up, “he discovered a skeleton seated in front of the television set.” Spread out in the skeleton’s lap was a television program listing dated December 5, 1993. Wolfgang had been dead for five years. What a sad testimony to the breakdown of neighborly interest and care! No wonder that an essayist stated in The New York Times Magazine that his neighborhood, like many others, had become “a community of strangers.” Is this also the case with your neighborhood?

It is true that some rural communities still enjoy a feeling of genuine neighborliness and that some urban communities are working toward greater concern for neighbor. Nevertheless, many city dwellers feel isolated and vulnerable in their own neighborhood. They languish behind walls of anonymity. How so?

 Behind Walls of Anonymity

Of course, most of us have neighbors living close by. The flickering light of a television set, the moving shadows at the window, the lights that are switched on and off, the sound of cars coming and going, the footsteps in corridors, the keys unlocking and locking doors are all signs that the neighborhood is “alive.” However, any real sense of neighborliness vanishes when people living near one another are hidden behind walls of anonymity or they lose sight of one another in the rush of a hectic life-style. People may feel that there is no need to be involved with neighbors or to be obligated to them in any way. The Australian newspaper Herald Sun admits: “Individuals are more anonymous within their immediate surroundings, and thus are less constrained by the ties of social obligation. It is now easier to ignore or exclude people who are not socially attractive.”

This development is not surprising. In a world where people are “lovers of themselves,” neighborhoods are reaping the consequences of the self-centered life-style of many. (2 Timothy 3:2) The result is widespread loneliness and alienation. Alienation breeds mistrust, especially when violence and crime stalk the neighborhood. In turn, mistrust soon numbs human compassion.

Whatever the case may be in your neighborhood, you will no doubt agree that good neighbors are assets to a community. Much is accomplished when people work toward a common goal. Good neighbors can also be a blessing. The next article will show how.