– by Michael Bowers
What makes Good Neighbors? Hint: Its not always fences
Let’s pretend that you and your family are about to move into a new neighborhood and part of the deal is that you get to hand-pick your neighbors. Sounds great, right? But wait—there’s a catch! You cannot pick someone that you know, or anyone with any specific kind of physical traits, educational level or occupation. You can, however, prescribe their personality using whatever descriptive terms that sound good to you. All right, now take a few seconds and think about what specific qualities you would like for your new neighbors to have.
Now, let’s compare. What’s interesting is that I’m willing to bet that our respective lists are very similar. Maybe they’re not identical, but I’d say in all likelihood that three-quarters of your list would incorporate the same basic ideas that I consider to be the best qualities of an ideal neighbor. Don’t believe me? OK—let’s take a look. We both would want neighbors who were first and foremost honest. We’d feel safer when we’re at work or away on vacation knowing that they’re not rummaging around in our garage “borrowing” our things. We’d like for them to have sincere courtesy rather than being condescending, gossiping busy-bodies who are always peering out at us from behind the blinds hoping to find (or invent) some scandal that we “must” somehow be involved in. We want the type of neighbors that if they do happen to see us (for whatever reason) half-naked and locked out in the rain at three in the morning—well, we’d like them invite us inside for a hot cup of cocoa and not share our misfortune with the rest of the neighborhood. It would also be nice if they were conscientious of our borders. This includes those that are clearly marked by fences and property-lines as well as those that are simply implied by common sense and decency. And of course there are at least half-dozen more specific things that we could list but by now you probably get the idea that we both would want neighbors who are pretty much trustworthy, helpful and respectful.
So basically we’re both saying that what we want our neighbors to be morally and ethically, responsible—in other words we want them to have good character. In fact, you probably noticed that we used character traits to describe them. Now, while it is true that none of these traits individually describe the perfect neighbor, once you pile enough of them together they begin to paint a composite picture of the ideal people that we’d feel comfortable and safe living next door to. Perhaps more importantly this list also describes the kind of people that we should strive to be in order to be considered “good neighbors” by others. In fact, it seems that good character makes better neighbors than a fence any day of the week.
Society’s Most IN-DEMAND Resource
Now I’m willing to make a bet with you. I bet that we can extend the above exercise to every single key role in society at large and still come out with the same basic results every time. Let’s try it and see what happens. What kinds of police officers do you want protecting the streets of your neighborhood? I’ll bet our list isn’t very different from the one we made for our ideal neighbor. In fact, I think it’s safe to assume that many of the same character traits that make good neighbors also describe good policemen. All right, let’s try it a couple more times. What kind of person would be the ideal teacher for our school children? What kind of people do we want our civil servants and elected officials to be? Again the basic list would probably look the same. We might use slightly different terminology to describe it, but overall we would want the people filling these roles to have a very strong personal moral/ethical standard—to be people who we can trust to do the right thing especially in circumstances when they could easily get away with doing wrong.
What I’ve come to call “the good neighbor test” shows that good character is society’s most precious resource. Just ask any business owner what kind of employee that they most desire to help manage their business. Or ask the wage earner what type of financial manager they want watching over their hard-earned retirement nest egg. What about the guy going in for by-pass surgery? You can bet that he wants his surgeon to be an individual with a very high degree of moral and ethical character. But wait! You can even reverse these roles and the results would still be the same. Employees, customers and professionals ideally want to work with ethical people who won’t steal from, take advantage or find excuses to sue them.
The good neighbor test demonstrates that the same basic characteristics that make for good neighbors also make for good teachers, policemen, managers, employees—in essence good people. And these same results really do extend to all roles in our society from top to bottom—from the President of the United States down to the kindergartner on their first day of school. Furthermore, it also shows that we as individuals prefer to associate with, surround ourselves and do business with people who possess good neighbor qualities i.e. good character.
And there’s a good reason! Society NEEDS people who are at their core trust-worthy, hardworking and who possess a high degree of self-control to be its leaders, role-models, teachers and innovators. Frankly, we need a society made up of individuals who have the knowledge and skills required to solve social and interpersonal problems. Unfortunately, good neighbor skills are becoming increasingly rare. (We’ll discuss WHY in a few minutes.) Instead we’re becoming forced to rely more and more on watchdog groups, auditing organizations, ethics policies and (worst of all) government legislation to try to make up for a society that no longer teaches and reinforces basic character-building skills or even right from wrong. It’s truly sad.
WHY the Good Neighbor Test Works
In the 1940’s renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow set out to identify all of the factors that motivate people’s behavior in life. His results were published in a research paper titled The Theory of Human Motivation and are well known today in scholarly circles as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. What he found was that the second thing that all people need more than anything else (right after basic things like air, food and water) is SECURITY. People want to know that they, their family and their home/assets are safe from unscrupulous people. But it doesn’t end there. They also want to drive reliable cars, eat food that won’t kill them and marry people who won’t cheat on them at the drop of a hat. In other words, most people feel that security is much more than burglar alarms or a few bars over windows. To them REAL security is just as much about surrounding themselves with good people as it is about keeping bad people out.
This basic need for us to feel safe and secure gives the good neighbor test its strength. Unless we want to move off and run naked in the jungles of Borneo living off of bugs and coconut milk then we are going to have to interact with and live next to people. We intrinsically don’t want these people to “bad” because we depend on them and are vulnerable to them.
Not a new Concept at All
As humorous as it may seem, even the men who rode on conquests with Attila the Hun wanted to be able to trust those that accompanied them. Yeah, even the average blood-thirsty Hun wanted good neighbors that wouldn’t rob and pillage the things that he had (ironically) just obtained by robbing and pillaging. Sure, this is an extreme example but it clearly demonstrates that the results of the good neighbor test are not limited to us today. In fact, if you think about it, our basic need for food, water and air hasn’t changed in six-thousand years—and our need to feel safe and secure hasn’t either. Therefore, we can consider the results of the good neighbor test as “universal” extending to all people regardless of time period, geographic location and social structure.
We shouldn’t be surprised at all to discover that all “civilized” cultures have had their own version of the good neighbor test. Of course they never called it that, but they did prize certain character traits that they felt would make ideal citizens—yep that’s right—good neighbors. There is a metric ton of specific examples that we could mention that would prove this thesis. However, to save a lot of time and space perhaps we could look at some notable “pillar cultures” (societies who have left enduring political, religious and philosophical legacies on the world) and that would likely give us a good representative example of how most civilized cultures would view the character of the ideal citizen.
First, consider the ancient Greeks. They’re called the fathers of democracy, logic and reason and are also recognized in scholarly circles as one of the primary influences on Western political and philosophical thought. The Greeks felt that the ideal neighbor in their society would possess a hyper-quality called VIRTUE. Virtue could be broken down into a list of positive character-traits that a “good” person possessed within their nature. Interestingly, they felt that only those who possessed high degree of virtue could be trusted as leaders, teachers and thinkers. A person’s character was evaluated based on their personal lives and the track-record of the decisions that they made. (Not a bad idea at all, actually.)
The nations of the Far-East, especially China (which have made up a very sizable portion of mankind) have been profoundly influenced by the teachings of Taoism. Taoist Philosophers taught the concept of De which refers to inner character or integrity. Interestingly De also translates to “inherent power” because it refers to the ability of an individual to rule over their inner passions. De has three primary traits (often called the “three-treasures”) which are COMPASSION, MODERATION and HUMILITY. If these sound a lot like the good neighbor traits that we picked earlier it’s because they are. Though the overall approach was much different than that used by the Greeks the goal was basically the same; to create trust and rules of ethical behavior within the community.
Of course these two examples alone are not all-inclusive. However, the sheer magnitude of their respective influence on the world’s political and social thought makes them pretty heavy hitters when it comes to arguing the validity of the good neighbor test. Entire civilizations, governments and religions have been founded from their core philosophies. Furthermore, civilized societies in general have gone to great lengths to teach and reinforce our universal good neighbor traits like honesty, helpfulness, compassion and respectfulness through civil ordinance, religion and tradition. This is why you will find that stealing, premeditated murder and kidnapping are considered morally bad in all civilized societies. Civilization of any scale doesn’t work unless those ideal character traits are identified and emphasized across the board. But even then…it runs into a big problem.
The WEAKNESS in the Good Neighbor Test
As mentioned earlier, the good neighbor test reveals that moral and ethical character is the most in-demand resource in society because we all want to live around people that we can trust. But can it help us to identify people who are truly, at their core, moral and ethical? Unfortunately, the answer is no. There is a glaring weakness built into the good neighbor test that keeps it from being practically applied towards other people. The good neighbor test simply does not have a window into someone else’s heart or head. Therefore, it can’t really tell us their innermost thoughts or core motivations. People are good actors—good enough that they very often fool themselves as well as others. I’m sure you and I both can think of a few politicians that have cunningly passed themselves off as good, upstanding people and then showed their true nature once they were in office. And we’ve all probably had a few “friends” that have shown the same tendency when the chips were down as well.
Using the good neighbor test as a tool for judging others is like using a knife for a screwdriver—it only works to a point and then it is either useless or it messes something up. The only practical use for the good neighbor test is as a self-diagnostic—a gauge to evaluate ourselves against the universal good neighbor traits in order to see where we match up. It’s a tool for helping us to become to BECOME good neighbors. We could go as far as saying that it is designed to give us specific knowledge for applying the Golden Rule: treating our neighbor just as we ourselves would like to be treated. And that my friends, is what makes it one of the most valuable tools ever known for building character!
Of course, there are times when we really need to know the moral character of other people. Somehow we’re expected pick out babysitters who are not also axe murderers and public officials who represent the needs of the planet Earth rather than those of Jupiter (or wherever planet they’re really from). As we’ve seen this is impossible solely by looking at their outward appearance. After all, almost every serial killer I’ve ever heard of was considered “nice” by his neighbors. So, how are we supposed to do it? How can we see into a person’s heart and gauge their true intentions? Is there some particular trait that we can look at—something specific—that someone dishonest couldn’t mimic? Fortunately for you and I there are actually a couple! However, identifying these particular traits in others may require some deep subjective observation.
One very useful way to glimpse into someone’s true nature is to observe how they interact with strangers like waitresses, cashiers and those wonderfully annoying telemarketers who are always trying to sell vinyl siding to folks with brick homes. It’s even better when something goes wrong. Nothing boils negative qualities to the surface faster than irritation and frustration—long lines, wrong orders, honked horns—they’re windows into the darkest part of our soul. However, this kind of over-the-shoulder observation is not always practical so we’re going to have to look for a trait that is a little more obvious under most circumstances.
The very best way to gauge the good neighbor character of others is to find out how important the development of personal character is to them. As a regular part of their life do they take part in activities designed to help them to become better members of their community? How important do they think their own neighbors are? What books do they like to read? How much of their free time is spent pursuing endeavors such as practicing an art or doing volunteer work? A person’s deepest heart—their hopes, dreams and core motivations are summed up in the priorities that they set for themselves and the things that they consistently choose to focus on. Unfortunately, we cannot be content with merely asking whether or not they attend church, have taken ethics classes or are members of a particular club or organization—those are all masks that people can (and often do) hide behind. One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard says “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than standing in your garage makes you a car.” What we have to do instead is ask better questions like: Are these individuals personally committed to a higher moral code that provides guidance for them in all of their decisions? When they are then you can bet that they’re a lot more trustworthy than someone who is only focused on “getting theirs” or “getting ahead”. The best people that you could ever know in life are those that are more interested in “contributing” something to it than they are “getting” something out of it.
The point is that we’re only going to find good neighbors in individuals who WANT to be good neighbors—who are intrinsically compelled to put in the sweat and personal sacrifice to work on themselves in order to become a better building block of their community. No—of course their not perfect; they’ll still make mistakes, hurt our feelings and at times make wrong and unethical choices. However, character builders are more worthy of trust because inside they want to be the kind of people worthy of that trust. And that factor alone makes all the difference in the world.
To drive this point home let’s take a quick look at a historical culture that took personal character building seriously. Like the ancient Greeks and Chinese this particular people has left quite an enduring mark on the world. What makes them unique from earlier pillar cultures is that they were not content with merely identifying the universal good neighbor traits and teaching them to the elite class alone. Instead they sought to teach the importance of personal character development to every individual member of their society starting at an early age. The result was absolutely staggering and provides us perhaps the very best example of an entire nation that is founded on good neighbor policies.
A 3rd Pillar Culture – and the BEST example by far
In 1630 Puritan leader John Winthrop stood up before the group of travel worn settlers on the ship Arbella and spoke these profound words:
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken… we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.”
History provides no better example of a people actively cultivating and reaping the universal good neighbor qualities than in early America. Early American settlers (and later their grandchildren who would frame our nation’s Constitution) lived staunchly by the Judeo-Christian Character Ethic taught directly from the Bible. Most of them had endured great hardship and personal sacrifice in order to create a place where man was free to read and follow the timeless principles found in scripture rather than be forced to blindly follow church tradition. Their uncanny zeal for taking the Bible literally as the written word of God provided a unique and unusually strong moral foundation on which to build the nation.
At its core The Bible is built upon a brilliant duel maxim:
1) In everything that you do show respect an honor towards God as your Creator and Judge. (Love toward God)
2) Show consideration to your neighbor by in all of your activities asking how it is that you would like to be considered. (Love toward neighbor)
Did you catch that second one? Yep, that’s exactly right—one half of the Bible’s big picture is simply applying the good neighbor test in everyday life! This neighbor-centered approach allows us to cut through any ambiguity, gray area and loopholes that exist between civil laws. Scripture teaches that “love towards God” and “love towards neighbor” form the foundation of all other laws. They provide two very high moral-landmarks that help us from becoming lost in ethical ambiguity. They serve as a type of mortar, binding all of the laws together in a unified, central idea. Most importantly, they shift the RESPONSIBILITY for being good, moral and upstanding people away from written laws and into the individuals themselves—forcing them to put in the time and effort to build personal character in everyday life—to raise themselves up to meet a higher standard of behavior!
The brave men who fought for our independence and drafted our Constitution believed that for a republican democracy to succeed long term it would “require more than any other form of government a higher degree of “virtue”—of ethical character—in its citizens.” [a] And no one has proved themselves to be bigger examples of such virtue than these men themselves. For instance, history records George Washington to be very polished and reserved even under incredible pressure. But what most people don’t realize is that Washington wasn’t always this way. He took the development of personal character and discipline very seriously. When he was a young man Washington had hand-copied an entire book called “Rules of Civility and Good Behavior”. He did so because he knew that personal character and refinement would help give him the edge needed to be successful and respected by his peers. In other words, he knew what it was he needed to do and took bold and decisive steps to do it. Katherine Kersten, chairman of Center of the American Experiment writes:
“Washington‘s life was marked by moral striving. He had a fiery temper, which he controlled through constant self-discipline. He had a love of honor and regard, which he strove to hold in check by courteous attention to all, both high and low. As a strong-willed man, Washington’s paramount aim was self-mastery. His guiding ideals were fortitude, justice, moderation, and a belief in the dignity of every man. (Alone of all the great Virginia founders, he freed his slaves at his death.) [b]
And Washington was not alone. With him were men like Benjamin Franklin [c](who wrote extensively of 13-virtues men needed to succeed), Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Rush. Each of these famous individuals leave a rich legacy of letters, articles and even legislation that clearly demonstrate the Judeo-Christian ideals they believed in and lived up to with every ounce of their being.
By analyzing this 3rd important pillar culture we can see that our nation was once built around the concept that a person’s success—a nation’s success—depends heavily upon how much personal character that they could develop. Sure, some modern scholars would never want to admit that much of our success comes because the fathers of our nation based our national culture on Judeo-Christian principles. But it WORKED and the results speak for themselves! No nation in the history of the world has ever accomplished so much, so fast and with such grace. Our forefathers may not have understood everything or even got it all right (for instance their tolerance of slavery will rightfully always be a blemish to their record) but they certainly tried to institute the fear of their Creator and the respect for their neighbor into themselves, their families, their institutions and their communities. Now their legacy falls to us to do the same.
FINDING the Good Neighbor Within
So let’s pretend that a famous or important family is moving into your neighborhood and part of the deal is that they get to hand-pick their neighbors based on specific character traits. Would they choose you? Why? Okay, let’s up the ante: What if they were given several videos, each 30 seconds long, on which, magically, are recorded random interactions that you’ve had with your neighbors past and present? Would they be more likely to pick out a video of something that you would want them to see—that would demonstrate you being a good neighbor? Or would it be more likely that they would pull one that didn’t show you so favorably?
The above questions are among the most telling application of the good neighbor test. It immediately flips on the light switch within our personal character exposing the good, bad and ugly of what’s inside. For most of us, our mind automatically grasps for specific experiences that will either justify or disqualify ourselves from being picked as good neighbors. For instance we might remember the time that we flew off the handle because our neighbor’s teenaged son backed over our mailbox—or the time that they came to tell us that our kids (for some unknown reason) just chopped down the heirloom apple tree in their back yard. Our mind might drift to memories of inappropriately loud radios, incessantly barking dogs and heated arguments over how far the limbs of an old rotting tree should be allowed to extend into someone else’s yard. But we will probably also think of shared garden-fresh vegetables, a friendly wave and the ability to borrow a cup of sugar or coffee at just the right time.
No one is a perfect neighbor. But we can all be good neighbors if we become more conscious of how our words, actions and even neglects affect others. Remember, the only reliable trait that we can ever use to pick out good neighbors is to find ones that are actively working and striving to develop character. Therefore, if we would like to be considered good neighbors then the burden is on us to put in the time and effort working on ourselves.
Trying to Grow Fruit without Trees—WHAT???
Before we close out our discussion of the good neighbor test we need to do a quick review and call the most important principles that we’ve learned into mind. We’re going to do this because there is one last very, very important (and quite controversial) question that we need to ask. More on that in a minute though. First, let’s review.
The first thing we’ve learned is that everyone wants neighbors that they can trust. We want trustworthy people to live around and do business with on a daily basis because inside we have a basic human need to feel safe and secure. In fact, having an abundance of trustworthy people is so vitally important that we’ve seen that the greatest civilizations of history identified and reinforced good neighbor traits relative to their own culture. However, despite all this, not one of them has ever achieved utopia. Why? Simply put it’s because human nature is good at camouflaging its true intensions behind masks, making an individual’s true character difficult to see. The only reliable way to actually reveal a person’s inmost heart is to see their commitment tested in the fires of their daily life. True character cannot be counterfeited or fabricated under emotional stress—it’s either there or its not. An individual who is truly committed to becoming a better person is unmistakable. Not only do they hold themselves to a higher bar but more importantly learn from their mistakes and take steps not to repeat them. These are ultimately the kind of people who will strive to do what is right—simply because it is right—even when there is no incentive to do so. And these are the people you can trust the most in life…good neighbors.
Okay, now that we’ve got all of that out in the open let’s ask that really important question we were discussing earlier. If we’re all looking for neighbors who are intrinsically motivated to develop good personal character—where do we find them? Is there a degree program somewhere? Is there some factory that turns them out? Are they born as the seventh son of a seventh son under a strawberry moon or something like that? Are there groups, institutions, clubs (even secret societies for crying out loud) that could serve as a resource for individuals who are striving to develop character? Is there some figurative tree out there whose fruits are individuals whose heart is dedicated to striving to overcome the pulls of their own human nature and become better people?
The problem is that in today’s morally-relative “enlightened” society it’s become popular to say that there should be no ethical or moral standard—no tree by which we should pick these fruits. What’s funny is that the biggest proponents of moral-relativism openly condemn religious faith (especially Judeo-Christian values which they see as abusive and oppressive) yet insist that people still somehow still possess the intrinsic moral values that are taught by it. Hypocritically, they believe that society should simply be “better managed” and by that they mean that individual people should be carefully watched and controlled rather than taught to make good decisions. Of course, these same folks would answer the basic questions of neighbor test same way you and I do. And just like you and me they want their spouses, neighbors and business associates to be honest and trustworthy people—and like us they feel betrayed, angry and hurt when they’re not. In their twisted view we’re all “supposed” to be good neighbors but we’re just not supposed to talk about where our moral teachings come from let alone suggest that others should follow them. These kinds of people believe that good neighbors are a fruit that somehow appears from thin air on the grocery store shelves rather than something must be cultivated and nurtured. Why? Well, because then they would have to acknowledge that the family unit and community-based institutions are precisely the trees that bear this kind of fruit to society. And believe me—they don’t want to do that at all—because it holds them accountable for their own not-so-good neighbor way of thinking!
Who are our Neighbors?
The folks who share the fence-line with us are, by the strictest definition, our neighbors. But so are those who live across the street, up the block and across town. What about our co-workers, our clients and Facebook friends? Yep, they’re our neighbors too. We can even include that underpaid cashier who shorted us our fries at the drive-through yesterday because, like it or not, she’s also our neighbor. In the truest sense, our neighbors are those whose lives we touch and influence, even in indirect or small ways. Technological advances like high-speed travel, portable communications devices and social networking sites have broadened the boundaries of our neighborhoods to include many people we would have never considered neighbors just a few decades ago. And this means that you and I have a greater responsibility to become good neighbors ourselves and then to teach others to do the same.
One last thought: Many people today feel that the concept of being good neighbors seems a bit old fashioned. Traditional neighborly activities like sharing vegetables over the back fence, swapping stories over iced tea on the front porch and doing yard work for someone who is sick sounds out of touch with our modern way of thinking. So in closing, I would just like to leave the following final point with you. There was a time when people did more of these types of things for each other and the world was better for it. They recognized that they needed their neighbors and they invested in maintaining their relationships with them. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten to teach and reinforce those principles in our society and now we all but forgotten them. Now the burden of responsibility rests upon our shoulders to learn and practice the lost art of being good neighbors. Whatever kind of neighborhood our children may grow up in depends on us and the decisions that we make now.
Some people, as they read this, are going to think that I’m being a little idealistic. And in fairness I am to a certain extent. In this present world we will never achieve utopia. Not while human nature rules. But personally, I’m a firm believer in the old saying “if you shoot for the stars you just might land on the moon” and I certainly believe that we’re capable of doing far more than finding new and scarier ways to rob, kill and exploit each other. This paper was written from the perspective that we as mankind all have virtually unlimited potential and decent intentions BUT ALSO a proclivity to make consistently bad and selfish choices. The track record of our history demonstrates that the human spirit can rise or stoop to whatever level it chooses on any occasion. We have within us the ability to create and do magnificent, imagination-defying things that no other physical life form is capable of. The choice is ours individually whether or not we use it.
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(a) Gough, Russell – Character is Destiny pg 22
(b) George Washington’s Character – Star Tribune March 6, 1996
(c) I am not making an argument about Benjamin Franklin’s religious life here. Only that the ideals embodied in his autobiography are consistent with the Judeo-Christian Character ethic as it was understood in that time.