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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Where to water the grass roots? At the street corners

We have largely had to allow ourselves to be cajoled and marshalled these past 18 months or so, sometimes coerced. In the face of an unseen threat, there has often seemed no alternative but to yield to the many institutions we have found intermediating between us and the coronavirus, most of them state-sponsored. The contract between citizen and government has been massively distorted, and the job for us all in these next 18 months is to play our part in forming what emerges as the new settlement between us and the collective.

This will be partly shaped by how much we care about how much integrity these intermediating institutions have shown, how well they have done their jobs and the extent to which inbuilt checks and balances have worked under extreme circumstances. Perhaps the more important part, however, will be how we grasp and realise our agency as individuals and voluntary groupings.

One of the consolations for many in this emergency is of a refreshed neighbourliness. Although by no means touched and experienced by all, a myriad of tiny, mainly local actions has amplified the deep urge for kinship that is common to our humanity. A positive by-product of confinement at home was that the luxury of real face-to-face encounter was limited to those physically close to us. (And, yes, an equally constructive feature for those with the means and ability to tap into virtual networks was of enriched encounter online; I am not diminishing this.)

I believe the real test is now ahead of us, and I think it can be summed up in the innocent – if loaded – question: “And who is my neighbour?” From the specific context in the Christian Bible many people would bring to mind, the answer amounted to “anyone with a need that we encounter, without qualification”, and I cannot think of any well-grounded religion or set of ethics that would disagree with that principle, whatever combination of unfettered altruism or enlightened self-interest is thought to be the motivation.

The practice is of course harder because, on the one hand, we are all limited in our personal capacity and resources, and, on the other, our in-built tribal instinct subconsciously performs a screening function that, whilst essential as a self-security mechanism, often becomes exclusionary. This can be further reinforced if we choose a neighbourhood to live in that is homogenous in composition or select only like-minded people to associate with.

Here’s an idea for a location to find your neighbour, again from a parable (of the Wedding Banquet, if you are interested): the street corners. The interchange, where paths randomly cross. Which ones? Not only the one at the end of your road. Not even just the one at your local high street. But the one outside the train or bus station, the downtown intersection, the crossing place from all directions.

It becomes real when “neighbour” has expanded from “strictly next door” through a theoretical abstraction and once more reaching the concrete: this time situated at the most diverse intersection you can think of.

I am not suggesting we should all go and randomly accost or befriend people we don’t know, but I am suggesting that an essential re-imagining of “Who is my neighbour?” is necessary, lest we all settle comfortably back into our own milieus.

And then what? I am very much a Burkean at heart and believe in banding together into “little platoons” to make a difference at grass roots level. Sure, government and large-scale agencies remain essential for top down actions, but as blunt instruments they can never effectively replace genuine individual, horizontally-oriented actions and relations. It starts by self-consciously adopting a personal demeanour that is unthreatening and suggestive of awareness and respect for others. It continues by asking oneself the question “How can I build community across boundaries here?” and, sometimes, helping build a “little platoon” to help bring it about or joining an existing one that could do with your time, energy and skills.

Most of all, it takes a sustained act of my will, an intentional desire to extend my neighbourliness against the tendency towards the comforts and security of seeking out only my kin and kind.

Finally, by my invocation of “street corners” I am not advocating neighbourliness merely towards people in my area or country, but as a stepping stone to a properly grounded global outlook of neighbour. Who among us has already forgotten about the vast numbers of people for whom the recent takeover in Afghanistan will mean reimposed oppression? They are our neighbours too.

For us all to strain towards such a dynamic, unconstrained, outgoing sense of neighbourliness and to think daily how we manifest it practically would, I believe, be a true, positive and lasting legacy of the era of coronavirus.

It would also give those who pursue it a renewed sense of purpose and, however small, a stake in the world they find themselves in.With the world and its institutions shuddering everywhere we look, rediscovering some individual and collective resolve would be no small achievement.

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