I am an avid reader; unlike my high-minded family and friends, however, I prefer novels to non-fiction. A well-written novel can introduce me to a whole new way of understanding the world, like Richard Powers’ The Overstory. Even the deceptively simple novels of the ethicist Alexander McCall Smith—such as The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series—manage to slip in considerable ethical reflection.
Another reason I love novels is that they encourage me to imagine myself into the life of another. I treasure this as an escape. But it’s also a moral exercise, according to the novelist/essayist David James Duncan. He points out that “…the ability to love neighbor as self is beyond the reach of most people. But the attempt to imagine thy neighbor as thyself is the daily work of every literary writer and reader I know. Literature’s sometimes troubling, sometimes hilarious depictions of those annoying buffoons, our neighbors, may be the greatest gift we writers give the world when they become warm-up exercises for the leap toward actually loving our neighbors.”
One of the reasons I fell in love with this community was that it felt like a place where people were trying hard to sort out how to love “those annoying buffoons, our neighbors.” I will change the details—we all know a story just like this—but many years ago someone I knew messed with someone else’s water. It was icy cold on the property line between their homes for years, until one neighbor experienced a tragedy—and the other stepped in to help.
In McCall Smith’s books he often makes reference to moral proximity, a concept implying that we have a responsibility to those in our presence: presence being defined as sharing a family, relationship, community, or simply physical space. This ethical principal causes his characters to ponder their duty to strangers and those they don’t like, often with surprising results and frequently without clear resolution other than the growth of their compassion.
I think that poor rural communities (and that’s what they say we are) prove that humans can thrive on moral proximity rather than wealth. When there are so few of us, we know a lot about each other; too much, sometimes, for comfort. But this makes it easier, if we’re so inclined, to imagine ourselves into other’s lives: what if I were the one with cancer? Whose home burned down? Who lost a child?
I’m not thinking about this simply because I’ve been reading Alexander McCall Smith. Rather, having knackered my knee, I find myself heading into surgical repair and convalescence. I also find myself the recipient of the benefits of moral proximity. Today someone dropped by with a load of books from the library. Someone came over and weeded the garden. Someone took Dolly for a long hike. The coup de grace? Someone brought a hardhat for the laneway pig statue, and then stayed to pose it, complete with sunglasses, bricks and straw.
Damn, I’m glad I live here.