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Sociability • Self-Knowledge • Social Virtues • Fear & Insecurity

6 Reasons Not to Worry What the Neighbours Think

We have reduced it down to a trite error – ’worrying about what the neighbours think’ – as if this were a trap that only a mediocrity could ever fall into. In fact, it’s what we all automatically do unless we have taken some radically conscious steps to overcome our impulses. Letting our lives be guided by the verdicts of those around us isn’t a mistake worthy of a minority of numbskulls, it’s the primordial instinct of every human – which we have to take immense care to outgrow intelligently and nuance rationally in order to stand any chance of claiming our rightful share of freedom.

What then are some of the key ways not to give in to the unhelpful ideas of our numerous so-called neighbours:

1. Firstly, we have to appreciate the history and, at a stretch, the biological basis behind our intense worries about what everyone else thinks. We aren’t demented to be so concerned; until very recently in our collective evolutionary pasts, we lived in small communities where the views of our fellow clan members truly could constitute a matter of life and death. 

However, as with so many areas (diet is another), our natural impulses have not kept pace with our modern realities. A key advantage of the contemporary world is that we’ve done away with neighbours: we can lead hugely independent lives, in large and anonymous cities, where we may eat on our own, define our identities by ourselves and earn money in diverse solitary ways. We sentimentally overlook that it can be a very good thing that we don’t know the name of anyone on our street. So it is especially unfortunate that we generally continue to respond to every rumour about us in the same panicked way as our ancestors might have done in tightly-packed forest encampments 6,000 years ago. We should take the advantages of our modernity fully to heart: there are police forces to guard us, an angry person or two on another continent can’t damage us and we are beyond being injured by mob thinking – just so long as we can induce our imaginations to remember that not caring about every stray opinion is at this point the sane option.

2. Part of the reason for our respect is that we have a very hard time shaking off the idea that neighbours thoughts’ must somehow be the result of an intelligence worthy of respect. Why else would so many neighbours think in a particular way and might have done so for a very long time? Yet that is to miss the extraordinary and always surprising role of error, happenstance and delusion in the formation of that large collective brew we know as ‘common-sense.’ An idea can sound eminently plausible, be believed by millions, have been around for centuries – and still for that matter be entirely and grievously wrong. 

Our credulity is, ultimately, a hangover from childhood, a period in which we readily took the adults around us more or less on trust, because they were twice our size, knew how to drive, could kick a ball fifteen meters into the air and appeared to know everything. 

But a continued adherence to a child-like way of thinking is a form of low self-esteem for which there is no ongoing rationale in an appropriately adult life. At some point, we need to imagine that the teacher doesn’t know. And correspondingly, that each one of us might be the originator of important perspectives which the dominant mentality has missed. With nothing remotely vindictive being meant by this, and on the basis of reasons for which one can feel immense compassion, the neighbour might simply be – on a range of key questions, and where it really counts – a total idiot.

3. We tend to assume that neighbours have always thought a certain way and will always do so – and therefore, that the onus must be on us to tailor our ideas to match theirs. But this is to forget just how much neighbour-thinking keeps shifting and so how foolish we would be to lean on it too heavily with any expectation that it might not leave us looking ridiculous one day. At certain points, neighbour-thinking might be firmly identified with a given position on how to earn money, conduct one’s personal life or raise children, and then – only a few years later – just as firmly with some quite different philosophies. There seems little point sacrificing our integrity or vision of happiness for the sake of ideas which the majority might itself rethink a few years down the line, when our lives will be almost over.

4. It isn’t the case that we merely worry about what the neighbours ‘think’. We also often want something a lot more emotional and touching (but also more dangerous) from our neighbours: we want them to like or even love us. We want them as our friends. We want their respect and concern. We associate fitting in with their opinions with being cherished and looked after. But we would do well to grow a little more cynical about what can truly be expected of the average neighbour. These types aren’t in fact, ever going to adore us in return for our obedience to their rules. There aren’t any special prizes for fitting in. This isn’t a love worth paying any advanced price for. However obedient we might be, the neighbour will be eminently ready to abandon us and turn the other way if ever we ran into difficulties. We shouldn’t be paying the price of living in a clan (the nosiness, the intrusion and the group bullying) when the real benefits of doing so (loyalty and high trust) aren’t even on the cards.

5. We are right to seek love from others; but we’re deeply wrong in how many people we seek it from. We do need a few characters who will be profoundly on our side. What we don’t require is a whole village to offer us its tepid and wavering good cheer. We need – at most – three fantastic friends of the kind who’d take a bullet and fight hard to get us out of prison. 

6. Finally, let’s be generous to neighbours. No one is merely a neighbour inside. In their timid heart, every neighbour is in rebellion against neighbour-think. He too in the middle of the night thinks the whole ideology he’s labouring under isn’t probably really worth the candle. He too has his doubts about the petty moral code he is following. He too would long to stop being an oppressive neighbour, if only he knew how. He too longs for freedom. The neighbour is an outlaw who, as yet, lacks sufficient courage. 

We aren’t – by openly breaking with neighbour-think – doing the neighbour an injustice. We are merely giving a voice to a spirit of independence that actually represents the neighbour’s best hopes for himself and which he might one day try to access – were he to learn to follow our newly rebellious and strategically defiant example. 

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