My Humble Neighbor

Years ago, I was speaking with a former neighbor of mine who was a high functioning autistic young man.  We’ll call him Danny.  We were both about to begin mowing our respective lawns, he with a push mower and me with my riding mower.  Danny asked if his yard could be mowed with a riding mower.

We live at the foot of a mountain, so both our yards are sloped, in some areas almost unwalkable.  I explained that due to the steep slope in his yard, it wouldn’t be safe to use the riding mower (there was some truth to that, but I have to admit I was being lazy and hoping he wasn’t going to ask me for a favor – I feared that’s where he was heading with the conversation).  Danny then pointed to an especially steep part of my yard and asked if I was able to mow that.  I said, “No, I’ll have to come back later and hit that with the trimmer.”

We then commenced our work and both finished about the same time.  As I headed to the steep part of my yard with the trimmer, I noticed it had already been cut.  I turned to Danny, who was still in his yard, and curiously asked, “Did you cut this?” 

He shrugged his shoulders and replied nonchalantly, “You said you can’t cut steep areas with your mower.  I can, so I cut it.”  To him, it was the most logical and rational thing to do.  I thanked him, but could tell he did not think anything of it, while my own conscience was stinging me for my laziness.

In his story The Wise Woman, George MacDonald taught that pride often comes from a lack of practicing virtue.  When we finally start doing good works, we pat ourselves on the back and think quite highly of ourselves.  MacDonald writes,

She had been doing her duty, and had in consequence begun again to think herself Somebody. However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes.

Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it…Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures.

When Danny mowed my patch of steep yard, I was quite touched.  It seemed significant to me.  But for him, it was as common a thing to do as breathing.  Looking out for his neighbor was just something that he naturally did without congratulating himself.  It reminds me of the parable Jesus spoke:

And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’?  But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’?  Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.

So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ [Luke 17:7-10]

3 thoughts on “My Humble Neighbor

  1. Nice story but i don’t understand why did you focused on mental illness of the neighbor, mentioning it several times? what difference would it make if it was a black neighbor or an atheist neighbor? Was it not enough to say “my neighbor Danny”?

    1. Yelena, my experience is that those who are autistic are usually more childlike in their thinking: that is, they don’t do things with hidden motives like many adults consciously and unconsciously do. I thought that by mentioning this fact, the reader would be able to better understand and appreciate that Danny simply did what made sense to him and was not acting with the hope of getting any future favors. There was no pretense of humility with him; both the kindness and the humility were completely genuine, which is honestly rare in “normal” adults. To me, it makes the story more believable.

  2. I don’t think of autism as a mental illness. It is a difference in processing and expression, closer to a difference in learning or thought, and falls on a spectrum. I don’t see an issue with mentioning the young man had autism. It was relevant to the story because it had meaning to mention it in context.

    The difference in Danny through his way of thinking with autism was a positive gift he had. I think it was positive for Jeremy to point this out. It wasn’t negative, and it was part of the purity of Danny’s heart in helping. I have worked in the past as part of a job with helping young men and boys with autism and other spectrum conditions, and my uncle had special needs (not autism) and was not driven by the same way the culture ticks about ego. He wouldn’t have understood an adult ego, and I wouldn’t want his condition unacknowledged as part of that. It explains more of who he was in a well rounded way. Jeremy knew Danny personally to say.

    Mental illness doesn’t have to have a negative connotation either, no more than one would be negative about a person who was diabetic and needed insulin. Really, it should be looked at with equal compassion and understanding, though society still stigmatizes someone with mental illness, but would not do so to someone who was diabetic or had other medical issues. If atheism or race had a context that fit the story, i think it would be fine to mention the beliefs or race of the neighbor.

    The context has a lot to do with the appropriateness.

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