Friday, November 07, 2008

"He Attempts to Love His Neighbours," by Alden Nowlan

(In the midst of writing my post in praise of community service below, this poem popped into my mind as an answer to why it is harder to give an hour to someone else than, say, write a blog post. I stand by the idealism of the other post, but I add this as truth and ironic corrective. Via The Writer's Almanac.)

My neighbours do not wish to be loved.
They have made it clear that they prefer to go peacefully
about their business and want me to do the same.
This ought not to surprise me as it does;
I ought to know by now that most people have a hundred things
they would rather do than have me love them.

There is a television, for instance; the truth is that almost everybody,
given the choice between being loved and watching TV,
would choose the latter. Love interrupts dinner,
interferes with mowing the lawn, washing the car,
or walking the dog. Love is a telephone ringing or a doorbell
waking you moments after you've finally succeeded in getting to sleep.

So we must be careful, those of us who were born with
the wrong number of fingers or the gift
of loving; we must do our best to behave
like normal members of society and not make nuisances
of ourselves; otherwise it could go hard with us.
It is better to bite back your tears, swallow your laughter,
and learn to fake the mildly self-deprecating titter
favored by the bourgeoisie
than to be left entirely alone, as you will be,
if your disconformity embarrasses
your neighbours; I wish I didn't keep forgetting that.


  1. Interesting insight. I'm not always loving myself, so I didn't notice it. Here's a hug!

  2. Perhaps you have just not found your "to love" niche.

    My mother is in an income based senior citizen apartment. They sit and wait. Many do not have anyone to bring them tomatoes or treats or just friendship.

    I can go in, with a box of tomatoes from my garden and be the most popular woman in the city. One son, even though his mother has been moved to a nursing home, still comes by and drives the van. Another woman, a teacher, has students help her once a week as she picks up grocery lists and does a little shopping for them.

    Perhaps, as people get older and they feel their lives have less purpose and they have lost their old neighbors and their relatives, they are more appreciative of love.

    Personally, I'll take a hug from anyone and savor it all day, or give one.

  3. I think perhaps the difficulty in loving others is not, as the poet says, that they are unreceptive to love, but that we are too willing to make excuses than make the effort to go and do good. Watching television is easier than loving. Loving others interrupts things. Love is difficult, and inconvenient, and service would be done much more often for many more people if it were easy. We must be careful not to convince ourselves that people do not want to be loved, or do not have time to be loved. We must want to love, and make time to love.

  4. Perhaps the person wishing to give love is offering it the wrong way.

    I have a child on the Autism Spectrum. Conventional methods to show her love and affection do not work. Skin-on-skin touch is painful to her. Strong perfumes or odors repulse her. Vocabulary that describes feelings confuse her.

    She wants to be valued--on her terms.

    Intent to do good is not enough. You must also learn to give what your neighbor wants and will accept.

  5. Love is rarely unconditional, and most people can't deal with the additional expectations of a 'loving' neighbor. But an exchange of kind words, well-chosen, is always appreciated, I think. We might just have to let it go at that, and allow things to take their course. Kindness is better than love sometimes.

  6. I really like this poem and it has made me think. I'm trying to learn to love in a way that is absolutely nondemanding, that never decreases or takes offense when people would rather watch TV than respond to me. I'm trying to make my loving them be about them, completely, instead of about me loving them. That's the hard part. But I believe--I have to!--that deep down people recognize and respond to knowing they are loved with absolute acceptance, even while they know they are difficult to love.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  7. And here's something I read just today, that reminded me of this poem so I dug it up in your archives to share with you.

    “And in a sense, this terrible situation [not wanting to let a lonely and longing little brother join in the game] is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it. We will to separate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved. Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives. And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation.” From Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton.

  8. "So we must be careful, those of us who were born with
    the wrong number of fingers or the gift of loving" --This is the moment when I knew I loved this poem.