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    fence and gate between suburban homes

    Is My Neighbor Dispensable?

    Kierkegaard and the Call to Neighbor Love

    By Ryan S. Kemp

    January 26, 2021
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    • Bob Noname

      Perhaps it's arrogant to think that your neighbors need you so badly as to pass up personal fulfillment for their sake. They may not even be a consenting party to this decision. In other words, perhaps it would be their opinion that you move on. They may not want you to "sacrifice" and stay for their sake. Your sentiments are full of someone who if full of self and the value they add. These are dangerous assumptions. Your neighbor may in fact, loath you. Perhaps you need to admit that you are the one who does the needing and wanting of them and not the other way around - of course, that may not be the case. Or maybe you're overthinking your own autonomy and the autonomy of your neighbors or anyone else that get's put in this position to "move" and make similar decisions. Are you not neglecting new neighbors when you choose to stay? Is a choice to stay also a choice to avoid some other place and some other group of people? Everyone in the world has the capacity for "neighbor love". So maybe it isn't so much an issue of "dispensability" - the love of each person is unique, and in that sense, indispensable. But at the same time, you can always rebuild - though it's difficult to admit that it's probably more difficult for you as the mover (who needs to now enter in existing friendship circles and neighborhoods as the new guy) than it is for those who send you out.

    Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) has never suffered from lack of attention. During his own lifetime, a mélange of eccentricities, personal foibles, and the production of many and large books made him a topic of constant intrigue. In the late 1840s, after a literary scrape that left feelings hurt, Kierkegaard was lampooned in a none-too-flattering cartoon series. Among other things, attention was drawn to the bend of his back and the cut of his trousers. Today, more than two hundred years after his birth, his star has yet to wane. Pop icons as various as Mike Tyson and Donald Glover, not to mention a mountain of ivory-hued dissertators, continue to return to Kierkegaard.

    While for most writers this overflow of attention (whether good, bad, or ugly) is a mark of genuine success, Kierkegaard – ever the contrarian – had mixed feelings. In the preface to his best-known work, Fear and Trembling (1843), we are told that he “writes because to him it is a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes.” Kierkegaard understood that popularity has a way of redirecting an author’s motivation, and rarely towards sincerity and truth-telling. In the place of a reading public, he claims to write for “That Single Individual.” This reader, unlike the crowd, sees herself as personally addressed. She has been invited to change her life.

    In September of 1847, after a half-decade that saw the completion of no fewer than eight books, Kierkegaard published a collection of spiritual deliberations under the title Works of Love. Less aesthetically experimental and philosophically dense than most of his early texts, Works of Love is a powerful meditation on Christian love. Unlike romantic love or mere friendship, neighbor love never depends on the worthiness of its object; equal and unwavering commitment is invested in both the unlovely and the cruel. In addition to this absolute commitment, neighbor love also includes a special degree of intensity. Using the language of “debt,” Kierkegaard describes the duty to love as “infinite.” Every moment presents a new demand.

    The significance of a life might expand not with the pursuit of ever-increasing possibilities but with their rejection.

    As outrageous as the idea of an infinite debt sounds, Kierkegaard thinks we recognize its goodness when we see it. He has the reader imagine someone who helps a friend, but as soon as he has rendered his service announces, “See, now I have paid my debt.” Kierkegaard contrasts this person with a second who helps, but – unlike the first – refuses to see his service as a way to balance some kind of ethical account book or, worse, as a down payment on future return services. In contrast to true generosity, all degraded forms of love operate on a strict economy of exchange: one person extends affection as long as she can expect a return. This sometimes takes the form of an explicit exchange of goods. Other times, however, the exchange can be more subtly selfish.

    In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, we see an example of just such a case. A religious petitioner visits Father Zosima, a Russian monk renowned for his holiness and wisdom. In response to the petitioner’s distress at no longer being able to believe in the immortality of her soul, Zosima invites her to practice “active love.” “The more you succeed in loving,” he urges, “the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.” In response to this exhortation, the woman wonders aloud, “Yes, but could I survive such a life for long?” She continues:

    And if the sick man whose sores you are cleansing does not respond immediately with gratitude… – what then? Will you go on loving, or not? And, imagine, the answer already came to me with a shudder: if there is anything that would immediately cool my “active” love for mankind, that one thing is ingratitude.

    She ends, “I work for pay and demand my pay at once.”

    Like Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard realizes that active love will strike many as absurd. Not only does it deemphasize romantic connection, it sets a spectacularly high bar for the lover. At the same time, Kierkegaard thinks that duty-bound love, for all its sacrifice, offers not only security for the person receiving the love but also deep satisfaction for the person extending it.

    After spending several years thinking, teaching, and writing about neighbor love, I recently concluded that my life was entirely empty of anything of the kind. While routinely performing “works of love” – visits to friends in the hospital, extra office hours with my students, early mornings at the homeless shelter – I was all the while prepared to leave these people if a better opportunity presented itself. By “better opportunity” I meant a lifestyle upgrade. A chance to move somewhere that afforded more professional prestige or pay or culture or natural beauty. In short, personal fulfillment.

    Naturally, I didn’t think this kind of change was incompatible with loving the people currently in my life. The first thought was that you can love people from afar; you can call or text or visit occasionally, send Christmas cards, and monitor the growth of children through Facebook. The second thought was more troubling; it was the realization that many of the people in my life could be easily replaced. There would be new friends to visit and neighbors to care for; life has phases and the particular people in one’s life vary from season to season. Change is only natural.

    The more time I spent reflecting on the idea of neighbor love, the more I began to develop a deep unease with this way of thinking. What if love is more than a passing synchrony of space and time and a shared business plan? Can one call it love if one is always prepared to break with a friend when she disappoints or when a better opportunity arises? If I moved to greener pastures, could I remain faithful to my current neighbors while living apart from them?

    As I was considering this, I happen to be reading Albert Camus’s novel The Plague (1946). Set in an Algerian coastal town during a disease outbreak, the citizens of Oran are strictly quarantined; no one can leave or enter the city. Friends and loved ones from neighboring cities are forced to radio their well-wishes from afar. Describing the experience of receiving such notes, Camus’s main character reflects that they “proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering he cannot see”:

    “Oran, we’re with you!” they called emotionally. But not, the doctor told himself, to love or to die together – and that’s the only way. They’re too remote.

    Like telegrams wired into Camus’s plague-infested Oran, I began to see that the phone calls and emails sent from my new home would only ever approximate connection, indicating feelings of goodwill while drawing attention to the gap that arises between people who no longer break bread together. There is of course something to be said for such expressions, but they can’t, in themselves, constitute true neighbor love.

    This became increasingly apparent as I considered neighbor love’s function as an immediate response to suffering. My neighbors have children with severe disabilities; they have uncertain job situations; they are estranged from parents and siblings; they are enslaved by addictions; they harbor resentment toward their spouses; they are worn out by long hours of menial work. My task as a neighbor is not just to join the battle against these evils, but to bear witness to their human toll. This witness could only take place in-person; I would have to live next to and with my neighbor in order to see and respond to these situations.

    I came to see that for all the small kindnesses I was willing to bestow on my neighbors they – the people themselves – had been more like the pleasant scenery of my life than objects of genuine concern. Not only was it painful to realize this about myself, it was painful to be this kind of person. I had a desire for something real, and seeing other people as secondary to my own advancement made satisfying that desire impossible. Though Kierkegaard rightly identifies this desire as a longing for love, before such love could take root in my life the idols of personal success, achievement, and advancement would have to be destroyed.

    While neighbor love is obviously good for my neighbor, I began to realize that it might be good for me too. Just as my appreciation for my wife grows with my commitment to her, my relationships with friends and neighbors might grow in turn. This idea ran counter to what I had previously assumed: the significance of a life might expand not with the pursuit of ever-increasing possibilities but with their rejection. A decision to stay.

    During the time all of these ideas were firming into convictions, I was – as fate would have it – presented with a chance to upgrade. A new professional opportunity presented itself. Now I had to decide. Not merely between two different jobs or locations. This was a decision between two kinds of lives. The anxiety of this choice was compounded by the realization that this was not the sort of thing I could experiment with – there is no such thing as a commitment tourist. You’re either in or out.

    I decided to remain.

    That’s not quite the end of the story. Though I’m here for good, the old self – the restless one – isn’t entirely dead. Every day is a practice in choosing this place again by refusing the temptations to turn my attention elsewhere. These temptations are now of a different sort, not ones to move but rather to distraction: to teach distractedly, to write distractedly, to parent and befriend distractedly. While these ongoing struggles may make it seem as though I have yet to experience the blessedness of this chosen place, that would be misleading. In proportion to my ability to give my attention, I have been rewarded with visions of its goodness.

    Contributed By

    Ryan S. Kemp is a professor of philosophy at Wheaton College. He is the author of Reason and Conversion in Kierkegaard and the German Idealists (Routledge, 2020). His next book, Our Fantastic Condition: The Worldly Gospel of Marilynne Robinson, will be released with Bloomsbury later this year.

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