Is Your Love Enough? Loving Your Neighbors and Working With Them Whether You Like Them Or Not

Variations on the obligation to love one's neighbor show up across both the religious and secular spectrum. They tend to provoke a range of responses - from those who attempt to sort out what loving people who are not part of your immediate tribe would mean, to those who reject the necessity. This is not an easy idea - and even if you can sort out what it means to love people who you may not know well, or like much, or even trust, or know how to get to knowing, liking and trusting - it is a damned hard thing to put into practice. I want to talk a bit more about why even use the word love, or why we might want do the hard work of finding a way to love others.

Because rather than talking about "working" with your neighbors or "getting along" or "building community" - all languages I use at times, I did want to talk about the problem of actually loving them, despite the difficulties that the word "love" evokes. I think it is the correct word, in fact. Instead of thinking of "love" as a particular feeling you have to evoke, we think of it as a larger structure for our relationships, an economy if you will, in the, literal sense of the world, a way of organizing our world.

The danger, of course, of speaking about love is that it evokes a range of things - religious beliefs, romantic and familial feelings, and occasionally a certain dippy, intellectually vacant inspecificity, the idea that our relationships will all be productive if we do group hugs and sing in a circle regularly. But in fact, I'd make the case for a language and world of love that is as rigorous as any mathematics, as formally structured as any economy.

That is, it is not loving people to express things lovingly all the time. It is not loving one another simply to articulate your common ground, or to allow everyone to "express" their differences, being universally supportive, or falling backwards off a chair. Love is needing each other - not in easy or cheap ways, but really, truly needing one another. It does not require that you share beliefs, or even like each other - all of us can call examples from our biological families that support this fact.

In this, love is not a feeling, or a particular social practice. It is the replacement, at least when possible, of a world that thinks in terms of maximization of personal profit and extraction with one that maximizes interdependence and the well-being of the group, not just the individual. And it requires that we risk depending on one another - that we give up the personal washing machine, and trust that our neighbors will share. That we trust that our children will care for us when we grow old, and they trust that we will help them as they get started. It requires, that is, that we extend outside of our most intimate world our need - and allow others to fulfill it, knowing that things may never come up truly even.

I think it may be that the most frightening thing about the loss of our fossil energies is that we will again be thrown back upon our own resources - and if we think of our personal lives as having to replace each and every watt and gallon, we know we can never make it happen. So "our own" has to expand into a larger community. We have to be able to risk that to survive. And that risk is ugly and frightening if we think that all it is is a risk - but it changes when we begin to think about that vulnerability as both creating the conditions to be loved, but also, creating and increasing the capacity to love.

I think a lot of people find the notion of being dependent upon others frightening, and not without reason. Other people are, after all, much less reliable and far more complicated than lawn mowers, dishwashers and private cars. And when, as often happens, the balance of what they do for me shifts, and I've done less and they've done more, I'm grateful, but uncomfortable with the necessity of gratitude at times. Risking owing someone more than you can pay is frightening. Indebtedness is difficult. No one wants to be the one who owes more, and most of us are on some level afraid of being taken advantage of as well. But more than being owed, I think we're afraid of owing.

We have this notion that all debts must be paid, when in fact, the only way all debts can be paid is if you live wholly and purely in a money economy, and never at all in the economy of love. We probably cannot love one another if we are too afraid to share. And we cannot go forward by replacing in each private home, a full set of low energy, private infrastructure. As Auden put it, the stakes are simply these - we must love one another or die.

And in fact, the economy of human love is what we're moving towards as we give up our electric tools and our reliance on the grocery stores and replace them with reliance on our neighbors, our families (biological or chosen) and our communities - that is the basic nature of community, or family - an unbalanced, imperfect, inadequate set of exchanges. Barter, and sharing and community are, as people often point out, far less efficient than money. That lack of efficiency is entirely the point.

Money allows you to figure out what things are "worth" - with barter or simple sharing, there are things that can never be quite worked out. Is that firewood equivalent to 20 dozen eggs and a bushel of plums? Was it really enough for me to babysit in exchange for the help getting the gutters cleaned out? Should I make some cookies too? What is the correct repayment to some for loving your child, or helping care for your elderly parents, or for chasing the local pest dog across an icy field to rescue your chicken, or pulling your car out of that ditch, other than someday doing it for them, or for someone else in need?

Things never come out evenly. You always have to be grateful, and thus, dependent. If we give up all the things that have stood as barriers between ourselves and the people we need, that have enabled us never to be dependent, we're never again going to be square. The only hope is that the person you are working with or bartering with or sharing with is secretly afraid that she/he hasn't done his fair share either.

But then again, that's what love is, isn't it? I've never met anyone who loved someone, or was truly loved by someone else who didn't secretly think that their spouse (or parents, or child or friend) was crazy to love them, that if they could really see all the way through, they'd realize how inequitable things are, and how little they deserve that love. So you end up just being grateful, feeling damned lucky that this time, you got more than you ever deserved. That some miracle, or gift appeared to you, and someone loves you.

Now we may never feel love for the guy down the street who leaves his motor running all morning in the same way we love our partners or children or parents. But we can have with him and with most people (not all, but most) those same moments of feeling we haven't done enough to deserve the help we get, the trust we can have in him when he drops off the kids at school or helps you fix the roof. You don't have to even like him to feel that moment of certainty - that you have gotten better and more than you truly deserve. And then you find a way to return that feeling, to make him say "Well, they are weird, but we're lucky to have them."

That is the love economy - the sense that you can never quite be even, that you never get only what you deserve or what you earned. It is hard to articulate what it is that you do get - that along with the eggs or the hands or the shoulder to cry on, came something that most of us know now only through lovers, children, parents, G-d, if that's your sort of thing. I think the easiest, although religiously laden word for it is "Grace."

My claim is not that the money economy is going away, not that we will all have the energies to live entirely in the world of love every moment, that every exercise in dependency and community will be a success. It is simply this - we will learn to love each other, or we will face a much harder and darker world. And our success in that world will almost certainly depend on the space we can find for an economy of love in the economy of money, and a culture of love in the culture of distance.

Sometimes all you and your neighbors will have is is "I've got honey, will you give me carrots?" And sometimes all neighbors are are someone you can ask to help pound the fence pole in. And sometimes all friends are is the person you sit down at the table with you and laugh. But the day you start to trust that your neighbor will remember that you need some carrots, and the day that your neighbors step away from their own work, no matter how urgent, because keeping you secure and your sheep in is more important than their work, and the day that the friend sits at your table, and shares the fruits of her garden and you the fruits of yours, and you eat and you eat and you eat and you are full together of what you share, you have achieved not just community, but grace, and an economy of love.


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These sentiments and philosophy apply to 'most' people, but that leaves plenty of the other type around. By that I mean the person that takes and feels no need to 'pay back', or simply is so unpleasant they get what they want to make them go away/shut up.

I have noticed that both approaches work very well for many people. It is annoying in times of plenty, but what to do when this describes your neighbor in hard times?

To me, love is reciprocated. If not, the act of ___ is simply for your own pleasure. Which is not a bad thing! I certainly enjoy the feeling when I help someone, tip my hat, and walk away. But it is not love in any context beyond a cosmic/karmic love. And that will not be putting dinner on the table tonight! If one believes in the rule of three, or some other system of rewards for good deeds, one can attribute a later event to your actions now. But in a strictly pragmatic sense, there is no connection. So how much love do you put out there without demanding a return?

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 09 Nov 2010 #permalink

Good stuff. Good points.

Some experience to offer: a couple decades ago I founded a conservation oriented non-profit. It's thriving today; and has a working membership that crosses all political barriers; I know we've got flaming liberals and tea partiers and Reagan Republicans, in close to equal numbers. They all get along absolutely fine, inside the boundaries of the organization.

I set it up that way; and was lucky enough to get it to work, and to keep working. A basic rule is - forbearance. We KNOW we'll disagree like crazy on politics; ergo; we just don't go there, at all, in this place. The amount of work they get done is huge.

And the "love" bit is there, though they wouldn't call it that. The members trust each other, and would certainly help each other out, outside the boundaries, now that the personal connections exist.

It does, and always will, take constant awareness, and work, to maintain the "forbearance" policy. It can be done.

Your "economy of love" reminds me of a gift economy; something I learned about by reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. In a gift economy, one has an obligation to give to others; if one instead hoards, then either there are social sanctions or one's possessions lose value in some way. The classic examples of gift economies, I believe, are found in some Pacific Northwest Native cultures.

Robinson also points out that science functions through a gift economy: when a scientist writes a paper, she isn't trading the knowledge for something else concrete, she's contributing it to the scientific community as a whole. And science also requires a certain amount of not-directly-compensated work (e.g. refereeing journal articles) to function well. Is science an economy of love?

By Bunchberry (not verified) on 09 Nov 2010 #permalink

When my grandfather died and the entire extended family came from all over to our small house for the funeral, I was overwhelmed by the gifts of food that the church people sent - platters of vegetables, ready to eat, frozen lasagne so all we had to do was reheat it, one friend even said "any night you want, just order Chinese and pizza - I'll pick up the bill". I said to my mother, "How will we ever repay these people?"

She said something that has stayed with me ever since: "We will never be able to repay them - we are making a withdrawal from the Bank of Human Kindness ... and when we are able, we'll make deposits. It doesn't matter if we pay *these* people back - it matters that when we can do something for someone, we do it."

I have had many occasions to make withdrawals from the Bank of Human Kindness - and thankfully, many opportunities to make deposits. It always makes me feel good to help someone else, knowing that some day, it might be me. Where I live, it's icy and snowy much of the year ... everyone hits the ditch at some point, and someone always stops to pull you out if they can, or at least to see if you're okay and call a tow truck if your phone's not working or something. Inevitably, when you say thank you, the person says, "hey, next time, it might be me."

It's a good attitude - I guess you could say it's a loving attitude.

Love your neighbour ... even if they're weird. :)

I have noticed that both approaches work very well for many people. It is annoying in times of plenty, but what to do when this describes your neighbor in hard times?


if one instead hoards, then either there are social sanctions or one's possessions lose value in some way.

Basic principle of a demurrage currency.

Sharon, Thanks for putting this into words. It is as valuable to me to love neighbors and strangers as is knowing how to grow food or tend my little flock. It is all part of one whole, I would not do without any of it if I had a choice.

As my body becomes less "wash and wear" and more "high maintenance," I reflect on how my needs for help are increasing.

Already there are younger people helping me out from time to time. That indeed is grace, to me. functions through a gift economy..

The "scientist" submits a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health, it is reviewed and perhaps funded with taxpayer dollars. I wouldn't exactly call paying taxes a "gift." Once funded, very poorly paid graduate students & post-docs, operating in what essentially amounts to a serf economy, do the actual research. At this point the "scientist" or "primary investigator" (PI) has already lost interest in the project and is busy writing another grant proposal. The only thing that matters when it comes to promotion to full professor or attainment of tenure is how much grant money the PI is able to obtain for his or her department. It isn't even about how much they publish. It's solely about one's track record at bringing in the bucks. If novel information gets added to the aggregate of human knowledge that's fine, but is actually incidental to the real objective which is to transfer wealth from the taxpayer to the university department where one is employed. If you want to call such a system a "gift economy," Bunchberry, or an "economy of love," go right ahead but be aware that by doing so, you're certainly adding novel twists to the definitions of the terms "gift" and "love."

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 10 Nov 2010 #permalink

darwinsdog -- of course, you are right, in the sense that in my original comment I ignored the fact that (most) scientists are paid by somebody.

I have to say I disagree with your cynicism about how science actually works: I don't think it is universally true that "the only thing that one's track record at bringing in the bucks." But it is also certainly true that much of how science currently functions (in the US, say, to be concrete) deserves cynicism: it's dehumanizing to the people involved and also leads to overly narrow and ``safe'' science being done. And often your summary is only too accurate: in particular, there is certainly much too much of a "serf economy" in science and in academia in general. I would argue that often the anti-social elements that you point out distort the quality of the science that gets done.

Let me talk about my own experience. I'm funded currently by a combination of a grant and by the university where I work. The university pays me to teach, straight up. That feels to me like a money economy thing. Not a problem, just what it feels like.

But part of my job is to do research. I don't wake up in the morning and think, "If I discover something really impressive today, I'll get my grant renewed/get tenure/whatever." When I publish a paper, yes, of course I want it to contribute to future grant renewals and to tenure/promotion decisions, but that isn't what motivates me day-to-day. Day-to-day, I want to figure things out, and that's what motivates me. And when I figure something out, I want to let other people know about it. The "exchange" between making scientific progress and maybe a future grant renewal feels pretty tenuous. On a day-to-day level, the research part of my work is done in some sort of gift economy.

Now, all of this is from my perspective: early-career, just started a tenure-track job, and I'm a mathematician, so I don't have grad students or postdocs doing experiments for me. I acknowledge the possibility that I am not seeing the way that science is actually done clearly or that I'm being overly idealistic. But I think that this sense of wanting to get knowledge out there and of informal obligation to the community of scientists and to science does motivate others, not just myself.

For me, reading Robinson's thoughts on science as a gift economy was a pretty transformative experience. I encourage you to look at what he has to say for yourself.

By Bunchberry (not verified) on 10 Nov 2010 #permalink


I am sure you are correct in many institutions - including the local public school board.

But . . there is room. When the president of the board/university uses a different measure for what is good for the institution and community - there is room for treasuring skill and aptitude, for effectiveness in furthering whichever goals the administration sets. Teacher's unions permitting, of course, 'cause often the Dept of Ed and teachers unions pull schools at all levels in directions to further goals not treasured in the community.

So rather than denigrate all university environments, and trade schools, and public schools, and corporations, and communities and counties and states - look to the leadership, and denigrate those that actually, by their performance, instituted reigns of terror, of neglect, of abuse of community and those they should be serving.

@ Sharon,

I am not comfortable with the notion of an economy of love. I think the issue I have comes from childhood teachings, that we are each responsible for ourselves, for our "spirit". I think love is an action of our spirit, a binding of us to "them" - whoever "they" are. Sometimes we discover that the binding - love - has formed without our being aware, other times we deliberately look around, and not just notice but actually see those around us, and act to sustain their joy and well being as well as support ourselves.

Sometimes we bind ourselves to a mirage we create of who the person is, and the love or binding is fragile. The better we see and know one another, the less chance the love breaks apart because we deceived ourselves. I think the first part is to learn to know one another.

One aspect of affluence is to have control over the resources one needs for comfort and necessities. Much of the interpersonal, community action you mention are reminders of times of affluence - that is, resources are available to support everyone in the community, but no cash to use to measure one's affluence - or needs.

What you call an economy of love, I think I call a healthy spirit. I can choose to embrace the needs of those around me, and choose to pay attention to who those around me are, and what their needs are, and then to act when their needs arise or my abundance overflows my own needs. That, I consider, is a healthy spirit, with regard to my community and my place in that community.

"Well, they are weird, but we're lucky to have them." And that "lucky to have them" part is an important observation. Looking beyond what is strange (or even, *gasp*, actually "weird"!) is an important step. You put aside trust for the moment, and look for something to respect, or even treasure, in a mature act of kindness, of responsibility, of deliberately acting to nurture your own spirit. (I could do with a bunch more of such actions.)

Blessed be!

Thank you, Bunchberry, for your thoughtful response.

A couple of things you say stand out for me. First, things may be different in a mathematics department than they are in departments of the empirical sciences. Also, although you don't describe the institution you work for, things are undoubtedly different in smaller state schools that emphasize undergraduate instruction than they are in large research institutions. My description of the academic environment primarily pertains to the latter. In large research institutions one's prestige is measured by how little one actually teaches. Teaching is considered an odious task to be left to TAs or adjuncts.

Another thing is that you describe yourself as being early-career. No doubt that young people are drawn to the sciences & to math out of love for the subject matter and desire to discover novel knowledge, to figure things out, to gain understanding of how the world works and to share that knowledge and understanding with others. After all, if wealth was their motive they wouldn't go into the sciences at all. But if one's graduate student experience fails to instill cynicism in the academic grind, early immersion in departmental politics surely will. I hope that as your career progresses you will retain your zeal. If you manage to pull that off, you will constitute a distinct minority, perhaps a minority of one. This in itself can be disheartening. Hang in there Bunchberry. Probably the truth lies somewhere between your "idealism" and my "cynicism." Best wishes.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 11 Nov 2010 #permalink

Life is relationship. Love is unconditional relationshup.

Good topic, nice comments.
Reminds me of a friend on holiday in Fair Isle (find a small dot north of Scotland) where an old man told her; "You don't always expect to like your neighbor here, but you surely need to love them."
My personal view is that if actually we got "what we deserve" we would all have severe problems.

By phil harris (not verified) on 14 Nov 2010 #permalink

One thing's for sure. We'll discover how much we love one another when Yellowstone blows up. Then, I hope it'll be all for one and one for all. We're at our best when things are at their worst.

Sharon - I appreciated your post, and agree in general with your conclusions, and I thank you for raising this topic. However I do quibble with your definition of love...

Love is a very over-used word: the English language really needs more than one word to cover all of the meanings attributed to "love", but the primary definition centres around affection.

To define love as "needing each other" is to seriously misunderstand the nature of love.

Affection, compassion, giving, caring: these are all aspects of love. Needing, wanting, taking: these are not love.

Love is about giving. It comes from the heart. Love is selfless - it flows from the centre of our being outwards to other beings.

Love is not about "needing each other". It is about giving selflessly to others, with no thought or expectation of return.