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Neighbors: A Parable

by Tim O'Donnell | October 26th, 2010

The argument about the mosque near ground zero is not going to end any time soon.  Again last week the debate demonstrated its incendiary nature by detonating on The View.  Bill O’Reilly was making a point about how the issue has cost President Obama some popularity because of his refusal to comment on the “wisdom” of building the mosque at the currently proposed location near ground zero when the debate blew up again.

O’Reilly, in pressing his point after the conversation with the ladies of The View got heated, said it was “Muslims” who attacked us on 9/11 without the qualifier of “extremist” or “terrorist” attached.  After ten years two things should be sort of understood:  On the one hand, when talking about 9/11 and the attack, when one says “Muslims”, it is implied that the speaker means “Muslim terrorist”, and on the other we should be mindful that when we do speak of terrorists we do not lump all Muslims into the category. So, O’Reilly misspoke when he stated his point without the qualifier, which he readily admitted and (sort of) apologized for.  The women from The View who walked off showed an inability to put up with another “view” on the matter.  They demonstrated the typical human intolerance most have when deep-seated beliefs are challenged.

I believe we’ll see more of this type of confrontation about this issue – a lot more.  Our inability to absorb challenges to what we believe seems to be a basic part of being human and it would be comical if it weren’t for the way it often ends – in insult or injury.

But it made me think about the “wisdom” issue again.  Even the most vocal and ardent opponents of the mosque Park51 acknowledge the right to build, the issue has always been about the wisdom of building it.  The president demonstrates a lack of leadership by not weighing in on the issue but his reluctance is understandable only to a point.  He must be careful that he does not choose sides but in the silly-season that he finds himself with the mid-term elections, he’s choosing sides every single day on one issue or another.  More than seven out of ten Americans don’t think the mosque should be built at the proposed site, so he risks little political capital in making a stand.  To hear and see him stumping on a daily basis, behaving in a most partisan way and then not offer an opinion on this matter seems a little out of step, maybe even disingenuous to some.  Hence the “disconnect” with the average American O’Reilly speaks of.

It seems President Obama is uniquely positioned to offer some real leadership on this issue, which could serve to bring the level of rhetoric down a notch and serve both sides of the argument well.  It’s too easy to stop at simply saying that the Muslim community on New York City has the right to build, there is much more to being a good neighbor than to simply exercise ones rights in a given situation. It might be legal to blast a stereo until ten pm in your neighborhood, but if your next-door neighbor just got out of the hospital and needed extra rest would you exercise the right and ignore his need for quiet.

This issue is not as complicated as we’ve made it but it shows how thin-skinned we humans are when religion is involved.  It has always been the source of great conflict and clearly it remains so.  Maybe a good old-fashioned, uncomplicated little parable might go a long way in simplifying the issue and bring the discussion out the ivory tower.

Neighbors: A Parable

John Parks, an executive in a downtown advertising agency had big plans for his next quarterly bonus. The kids college funds were in place, the house is almost paid off, retirement is in sight and he decided it was time to fulfill a longstanding dream of buying a 1972 red Corvette.

Red Vet

Ah yes. The red Corvette exactly like the one his next-door neighbor Ben Washington bought three months earlier.  The two best friends, John and Ben, had long planned to buy identical red corvettes so they could tinker, cruise the open roads and take car trips in tandem while talking on blue tooth.  They both worked hard to get ahead, provided a safe, idyllic suburban life for their families and were looking forward to some serious playtime with matching big-boy toys; a shared hobby as they grew old together.

They each grew up poor, John Parks on a farm in Indiana and Ben Washington in a housing project in St. Louis.  They met at college in Illinois where they both received football scholarships and became friends their freshman year.  Many of the other players came from the affluent suburbs of St. Louis or Chicago and most had nice cars and new clothes.  Ben and John were initially bonded by their relative lack in comparison to the other boys.  They both majored in business and worked hard on the gridiron; they became star players then graduated and established careers in the same midwestern city.   Eventually they ended up living next door to one another and raised families.  Although their suburban neighborhood was made up of a rainbow of ethnicity, background and creed, they belonged to a close-knit group of hard working, middle class families with similar values of family, country and faith.

John and Ben talked often about buying matching Corvettes, the chosen model had meaning as a symbol of how far they’d come from those days of lack; they chose 1972 as the model year because that was when they first met, red because that was their team color and Corvettes because – well, they were red blooded American males!

Everything was going according to plan and each man had made room in their respective garages to house their new toys.  Then tragedy struck.

Ben was the first to locate and purchase his ’72 red Corvette.  A week after the purchase he was out cruising one evening after dinner in his new “Vet” with his seventeen-year-old daughter and lost control navigating Riverbend Road just outside of town. Ben was killed and his beloved daughter Victoria (Vicky) seems likely to spend at least the next several years in a wheelchair.  The accident devastated the All-American Washington family, deeply affected John, his wife Ellen, their two daughters and the rest of the neighborhood as well.

John was deeply saddened by the loss of his best friend and was struggling with depression over the incident.  He’d been side by side through much of life with Ben, even longer than he had with his wife Ellen; they practically grew up together.  In time, John decided he would proceed with his plan to honor his lost buddy and buy an identical 1972 red Corvette.  Ellen tried to get him to change his mind but he stubbornly refused to abandon the plans that originated many years ago over beers with his lost pal.  “It’s what I’d want Ben to do if our fates were reversed” was his response to Ellen.

After searching for just the right car John finally found the one.  The owner agreed to let him take it home for a weekend test drive and John was thrilled.  The annual neighborhood block party was that weekend and he couldn’t wait to park it in the driveway and display it for all of his other neighborhood buddies to see how he was going to honor Ben’s memory.  He was excited to tell them how he was dedicating the car to Ben, how he would keep Ben’s memory alive by going forward with the plans they made together.

On Friday night he pulled it into the garage and spent the rest of the evening giving it a thorough inspection and first thing Saturday morning he planned to take it out for a long, early morning test-drive in the country.  Then he’d bring it home to wash it then park it in his driveway in all of its sparkling, cherry glory for all the neighborhood to behold during the block party.  A fitting tribute to Ben, he thought.

The day went exactly as planned until he got to the party.  The reception from the neighborhood was mute as he got the cold shoulder from everyone.  This wasn’t the reaction he had anticipated.  The general and outward jocularity usually evident in the banter between the men was missing and the other guys seemed uneasy around him.  The tension became palpable.  He wasn’t sure exactly what was wrong with everyone but he figured it would go away after the party got rolling; after all this was a fun loving bunch of old neighbors who had literally raised their families together – they had their differences over the years but they always worked them out amicably.  This group was like a big extended family, a true example of  “neighborhood” as they often boasted.  At first John wasn’t too concerned.

After about an hour, things hadn’t improved, the tension mounted and he considered leaving.  He then noticed a group of about six of his buddies; beers in hand, begin to drift his way.  He also noticed the entire group of neighborhood women huddled around Eva Washington and his own wife Ellen glaring at him.  He finally began to realize what the problem might be.  Maybe Ellen was right after all.  John felt defensive.

His six neighborhood buddies finally arrived at the picnic table in the corner he had staked out for himself.  They gave each other apprehensive nods and little hand signals.  They had known one another for a long time, where had all the uneasiness come from wondered John.

Finally Ian Bolden spoke up.  “Hey John, I see you went ahead and bought the Corvette.”

John replied, “I haven’t actually bought it yet Ian, just home for an inspection and test drive. Pretty sweet huh?

Then Dave Martin from across the street chimed in “John, do you really think it’s a good idea to buy the same model car that Ben was driving when he had the accident?

Sure Dave, you know we were planning this together and I can’t think of a better way to honor Ben’s memory than to follow through with a plan that meant so much to him – he was my best friend and I’m sure he would want me to carry out our plan.  I’m sure of that” he said, with a little more emphasis than he intended.

Have you asked Eva and Vicky how they feel about it?” asked Ian.

Well, no – I guess I thought they’d appreciate my memorial to Ben – why fellas?  What’s going on?

Dave explained, “Eva Washington was freaked out when she saw you pull away in that car this morning and she’d been trying to keep Vicky from seeing it all day while you were out washing and waxing it.  When she wheeled Vicky out of the house to bring her to the party, the poor girl fell apart and had to be brought back in side – she refuses to come out.”

Ian added, “The red Corvette brings back very painful memories of her dad and that terrible night of the accident.

Jim Rose from the other side of the cul-de-sac spoke up, “John, after hearing your motives for buying the car, I think I speak for all of us in saying we feel much better about why you’re considering it – right fellas?”  They all nodded or voiced agreement as Jim continued, “John, nobody is going to argue with your right to buy that car and we certainly now understand your motives are not selfish, but at the same time, we hope you will understand the pain it would cause Eva and Vicky being forced, by such a vivid reminder to relive that awful night every time you take the car out of the garage.  It’s not your fault that the accident happened but in this neighborhood we’ve always watched out for each other’s families when necessary and it seems that maybe Ben would understand and probably prefer you protect his wife and daughter from the painful reminder even if it meant finding another way of honoring his memory.

Ian spoke up again; “John, again, you certainly have every right to buy that car and although your sentiment to honor your buddy is noble, we question the overall wisdom of having that identical red Vet so close to the people who may never fully heal from the terrible night where Ben lost his life and Vicky the use of her legs.  The reminder is just too vivid to allow them to move on.

Yeah,” said Dave, “maybe you could even buy the car and store it somewhere else, just keep out of sight of Bens family

Yeah, that way you could honor your pact with Ben and protect his wife from the memory at the same time.” added Jim.

Well,” John began slowly, processing as he spoke to his buddies, “I guess in my zeal to honor Ben, I neglected to think through all of the ramifications of my actions; I would never intentionally hurt Eva or Vicky or any of you goofballs either for that matter.  This neighborhood has always been a special place and I guess I was blinded by my passion to keep Ben a viable part of it – I’m very sorry…” His lip quivered and his eyes welled with tears.

Ian cut him short; “John, no need to beat yourself up over this – you’re a good guy, we all know that and we know you’re in pain over Ben, just like we all are.  And we know you’ll do the right thing.  Like the great neighbor you have always been, you’ll consider your neighbors feelings before you act.

Yeah,” chimed Dave, “that’s all we can really ask of each other in the end any way is to be considerate of others because we’re all in this together.

After a long and awkward pause, John said firmly, in a strong, clear voice,  “The car goes back tomorrow – first thing.  And thanks you guys.  It takes good neighbors to tell a guy when he might be hurting a mutual neighbor.  I’ll find another, more appropriate and considerate way to honor Ben.  Without your courage to call me out I could have greatly insulted the last people in the world I’d wish to harm.

And thank you John for not digging your heals in on the Vet just because you had the right to… your wisdom to know the difference between your rights and your duty is why we all love having you as a neighbor and I suspect it’s one of the traits that Ben loved about you too.” Ian said as he put his arm around John’s shoulder.

After that the group of seven neighbors, all misty eyed but laughing walked over to the keg, filled up their red plastic Dixie cups and toasted their fallen buddy Ben.

Then, slowly, after returning the Vet to the cover of the garage, John made his way over to speak directly to Eva – one neighbor to another as they hugged and cried and laughed as the group joined them in telling stories of Ben, their neighbor kept alive in their memory.

No mention of the red Corvette was again necessary – everyone just understood John was doing the right thing – the neighborly thing.

2 Responses to “Neighbors: A Parable”

  1. Ayn Cabaniss says:

    Excellent column. Although I can’t say I’m in total agreement with you, you’ve done a slendid job of conveying your point through means of the parable.

  2. timodonnell says:

    It’s very tough for me to articulate exactly how I feel on this issue. Politically I do not like when people are told they can’t exercise a specific freedom. In my heart I empathize with the families of 9/11 victims and New Yorkers in general who claim they would be insulted or hurt.

    Thanks for the compliment but I almost feel like a weenie – like I’m trying to straddle a fence. “you have the right, but I’d rather you didn’t”. Not a strong position I guess but the parable sums up how I actually feel.

    I’m very interested in what your thoughts are Ayn if you’d care to elaborate.

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