I was doing research for a writing project and came across notes on a study conducted many years ago by Polish anthropologist Alicja Iwanska. Iwanska spent time in a US farming community and concluded that the average Americans who lived there basically divided the world into three spheres: scenery, machinery, and people.
And the funny thing is that many if not most human beings didn't make the cut to be considered "people." They were actually put in the first two spheres: just part of the landscape, or there to do something for us. In Iwanska's study, the Native Americans were scenery. The migrant farm workers were machinery.
In our day, that kind of approach puts a grocery clerk on the same level as her cash register and sees a bus driver as an extension of his bus. Only friends and relatives, people we might talk to in church or who we'd welcome to drop by for a cup of coffee are "real people."
Who Is My Neighbor?
While I've been in cultures where the term "neighbor" suggested some level of sympathy or identification, this is not so widespread and common as once it was. Worldwide, people are on the move. They don't stay in the communities where they grew up. They may not know their neighbors. They probably won't go to school with the same kids from kindergarten until graduation like their parents or grandparents did.
I have to admit I've fantasized about that kind of existence most of the world has left behind: life on the prairie or something: where everybody knows your name, where the whole town pulls together to put up a barn or help the family that lost its crop in a hailstorm.
Country music and Christian fiction often play on that theme. That place you couldn't wait to get out of, they'll still be there to welcome you back when you "come home." Did you know country music started to take off as a genre at exactly the same time the population of America became more urban than rural? Only then could it pull on the heartstrings and strike that nostalgic tone.
The Need for Connection
Even as we grow apart we need to feel connected with someone, even if it's just a dog or cat. It's just how we're made. So we break the connections we have or had but look for new ones. Some start treating those they will never meet and who may not even exist as "real people," giving a piece of their heart to a character on TV or someone famous, someone they can "know" without going outside their front door. We may have considerably less interest in the stories and struggles of the person who happens to live across the street, but we really care about what happens to an actor, athlete, TV personality, or musician. I don't know how many Facebook posts I've seen entreating me to pray or send good thoughts toward a celebrity facing an illness or calamity - maybe the same cancer as that guy across the street, if we only knew him, and he's someone we could actually help. I think such celebrity prayer requests now outnumber the "pray for my husband's aunt's neighbor" pleas I get from the church prayer chain.
I suppose some might say the whole world of religion is invented to help us feel we're not alone. Others would say religion is just evidence of our gut feeling or conviction that we're not.
A Change of Perspective
Anyway, back to "scenery, machinery, and people." Many of the things I'm involved with as a mission mobilizer have to do with helping people stop seeing and treating other human beings as scenery or machinery. Even those who salute different flags, speak other languages, and live different ways of life - they are actually people.
Mission trips are great for that. Unlike the tourist, the short-term missionary is put into positions where he or she is challenged to identify with, serve, and learn from the local person. Maybe even talk to them or drink tea with them.
Sometimes they come home and treat the grocery clerk or bus driver differently as a result.
See also: In Defense of Talking to Other People (and other posts tagged "listening.")