Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
My neighbor needs me. Nope, I don’t live in a commune or some other kind of cooperative. I live in a house on over an acre of land, which abuts four other properties, with a house across the road. Though this sounds congested, the trees bordering the property make my home private, and the road is quiet and peaceful. I can go days without even glimpsing sight of any of my neighbors. The town picks up our garbage and plows our road and there isn’t even a sidewalk or common mailbox space to keep clean together, or shared fences to maintain. And, yet, I profess that my neighbors need me. Why?
My neighbors need me to be honest. They need me to not accuse them of things that they haven’t done, like stealing my Wi-Fi or trashing my yard. They need me to not call the police to their doors for some contrived reason or blame the litter in the road on them, even though I know they didn’t do it. They need to be able to trust me because we live on the same spot of earth, sharing lawn and trees and air and road. Keeping this in mind, I see that everyone is my neighbor, for we all live on the same earth, sharing flora and fauna, sun and air and water. My fellow human beings need to be able to trust me, for our common Creator has entrusted me with my own unique space in one particular slot of time. What I do with that space in that time has consequences on everyone around me, near and far, as a pebble dropped into the center of a pool causes ripples that stretch out to the shore. Those nearest me feel the effects soonest and most strongly, but even the ever decreasing waves can be felt in further places and more distant times.
This is not merely a call to better ecological awareness and to actively reducing my carbon footprint on the planet. No, this is about the fullness of the truth. (For I don’t want anything less than fullness of life.) And the full truth is that I affect people by simply passing by them in the mall or on a sidewalk in the city. My presence beside someone in a restaurant or a church pew can have an influence on that person’s day – and, yes, even on that person’s life. A miserable demeanor or attitude can be contagious and set people out with a bad feeling, though they might not even know why, and cause them to fall into meanness themselves. Thankfully, a joyful demeanor or attitude can likewise be contagious and set sensitive people out with a positive outlook, spreading good feelings and actions. This isn’t overstating anything. We humans are sensitive creatures and we pick up signs and stimulations from the others around us as naturally as we absorb nutrients and toxins from food.
My neighbor needs me to testify to the truth.
Perhaps, I feel this reality more acutely because I am so very noticeable among others in a crowd. I am never the person who blends into the background causing no reaction whatsoever. Not only am I in a wheelchair, which is different than most people, but I am also crumpled in that chair by severe scoliosis that causes my head to rest sideways on my left shoulder/hunchback. Not a pretty picture, I know. I may be the most deformed person that some people will ever see in person. And if I were a negative type of person, wholly self-centered, living a “woe is me” existence, then the people whose eyes inevitably fall upon me would have a sense of miserable sadness and that melancholy would stick with them for the next few minutes, or even hours or days, of their lives, affecting their thoughts, words, and even actions. Happily, I am naturally a positive type of person (though sometimes self-centered) and I live a grateful and joyful life, loved and loving. I know for a fact that strangers who just look at me can feel uplifted somehow, having more optimism and appreciation for the goodness and beauty of life than they had a moment before. To share one story:
One day, after Mass, a man, who was just visiting our parish and saw me for the first time as I sat across from him, came over and told me that my smile was exactly what he needed that day. He said that he was going through a rough time and feeling low, but seeing me all crumpled and crippled, obviously intelligent enough to know how bad a shape I was in – and, yet, genuinely smiling, genuinely taking in everything around me with appreciation and gladness – this, he told me, was like a wake-up call for him. My presence snapped him out of a funk and reminded him that life is inherently good and beautiful and that he had many blessings for which to be grateful.
It seems to me that the effect we have on others is stronger if we are people of faith because our presence is deeply rooted in Presence, and our joy is more than just a passing smile. Perhaps, also, the effect is felt most strongly on people who are struggling with faith. To whom much is given, much is expected. As a believer, I believe fully and deeply in the goodness of God and God’s Creation – I have utter faith in the goodness of being itself. Through Christ, I have an eternal perspective and know that all works out for the good through God – my hope is in divine and endless mercy and, so, is never squashed. And, knowing that I am infinitely and particularly loved, I am free to give love, and loving kindness, to everyone around me. I know the truth and the truth has set me free. If what I were to portray and give out to the people around me was doom, gloom and meanness, then I would, in effect, be bearing false witness to life itself. Sure, I may honestly be feeling like crap one day – but, knowing that it is just one day and having deep faith, hope, and love in and for life and the joy of goodness, for me to lead other people into misery and melancholy would be a deceitful act on my part. My neighbor needs me to testify to the beauty and goodness and joy of life itself – crippled and crumpled as its forms may be – and to the power of love. For that is the fullness of truth.