Who is my neighbor?

We moved from New York City to the suburbs of Philadelphia in June. Over the past 8 months, I’ve run a variety of different routes around my house in order to get to know the area. What I’ve discovered is that, depending on which route I take, I can get very different impressions of the place.

Running through town and along some of the streets, there are a lot of smaller, older homes. Run a different loop and I go past several old Main Line castles (for lack of a better word), gated estates featuring driveways that loop in front of the house to display some sort of sleek black or silvery luxury car. There are also several newer McMansions, erected on smaller lots which I imagine used to house some of the smaller, older homes before the new owners, enamored with the location, elected to tear the older homes down.

Humans are social creatures. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that how we view our lives has a lot to do with where we land in the heap. We spend more on positional goods that others can see than on those they can’t, we give more credence to status symbols than we probably should, and we prefer to be the best paid member of our reference group, rather than the least, even if the latter is actually a higher dollar number.

But all this then makes my choice of route very important. Because who, really is my neighbor? Who is the right reference group? If I look one direction, I can think I live in relatively modest circumstances. If I look another, I would think my house is rather grand. Perhaps this is why some ridiculously high percentage of Americans claim to be middle-class. There’s always someone with more. And there’s always someone with less.

Of course if we really want to feel rich, we can try looking at humanity as a whole as a reference group, rather than the slice in any particular zip code. Because even the smallest, oldest house on any of my running routes would be a castle in, say, a Delhi slum. And in a globalized world, increasingly, the whole of humanity is the right reference group. The median household net worth in the US is around $120,000. The median wealth of the world is about $2,000. Now that is quite a gap between rich and poor.


(photo courtesy flickr user andrew_j_w)

6 thoughts on “Who is my neighbor?

  1. I love the title of this post. It was the question used to launch Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan in the Scripture.

    I’ve always tended to look down rather than up in my comparisons with others. It makes me more satisfied with what I have. Even with stillbirth, which was emotionally very painful, I recognized without modern medicine, I would have died in labor.

    1. @Twin mom- exactly. If I ever feel that the world is tough, I try to remember that before a little over 100 years ago, I couldn’t have voted in this country. Some cultures don’t believe in sending girls to school now. And before modern medicine, many of us would have died in labor (and a high proportion of our children too). We’ve won the lottery of human history to be alive now in a society that gives us incredible freedom and prosperity.

  2. It’s all relative, isn’t it? I think this is an important concept in being content with oneself and judging one’s income/social level.

    1. @Sukeina- it really is all relative. One of the great aspects of journalism is getting to talk to all kinds of different people. You soon see that people have very different ideas of what is normal and what is not. Same with travel. You can see that some people live happy lives without functional plumbing…but boy are you happy you don’t have to!

  3. I thought this when they found bin laden.. his palace was such a dump ! and it cost like 10 million to build… as women also we have to try to remember that what we have we have had to fight for and we should try to help each other on the collective way up… 50 years ago in this country a woman could not get a credit card in her own name…I keep this in mind and I try to help my neighbor and walk her kids home from school if I am working from my home office and she is working in the city.. what goes around comes around and that woman is someone’s daughter as our daughters are the future and we want them to self actualize.. in the phillipines women have 10 kids they cant feed b/c they cant get birth control… and so our ideal number of 2.4 kids which is also btw their number… means a lot… we as women who have been given a lot; god probably expects a lot of us..and I think we often let him/it down!

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