Who is my neighbor? — A lesson from ‘The Twilight Zone’
By David Cooley.
I continue to be amazed by our divided nation. A wise priest once told me that you can always see where the devil is hard at work because of all the anxiety and division he causes. The more I pay attention the more this seems increasingly obvious. Another thing I remember from when I was young, is that the devil is the father of lies and those who care not for the truth are all too willing to participate in his evil schemes. In contrast, some signs of Christ’s work in the world are truth, unity, peace and understanding. Interesting questions to ponder each day: what seems to be more prominent in our country and in our world — division or unity? And, what role do I play in all of this?
It seems like no one can agree on anything anymore, even some basic concepts like the existence of good and evil, the fact that some things are simply right and some things are simply wrong, and the dignity and value of every single human life. It would also be nice if we could at least agree that people have a right to know what’s going on in the world without being constantly manipulated by hidden agendas. It saddens me when I see friends turn on each other because they have a difference of opinion on an issue and all the roads that lead to a civilized and reasonable conversation are closed until further notice. It seems like, in the year 2020, the one thing we have all been united in, so far at least, is defeat.
One of my favorite television shows of all time is “The Twilight Zone.” It’s an old show (from the late 1950s, early 60s), but, in my humble opinion, there was something about the quality of the program and the atmosphere that will never be matched. I’m sure part of it is nostalgia — I can remember staying up late to watch the old reruns, while I was sure everyone else in the house and in the neighborhood was sleeping. I can still hear the cool, confident voice of the host, Rod Serling, as he appeared in stark black-and-white and prepared me for another ride of twist-and-turns with an unnerving lesson that “things aren’t always as they appear.” Aside from my Catholic faith, there is probably nothing that has had a larger impact on how I see the world than that show. There are many great episodes from that other dimension that are more than worthy for reflection, but one that I come back to on almost an annual basis is a disturbing little tale called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”
At the close of the episode, aliens observe from a safe distance as a small, lovely town full of everyday people descends into chaos. The intelligent beings from somewhere else have discovered that there is no need to attack and invade the people of earth. Instead they pick one town at a time, cut off its power, scare the people a little with visual tricks, and leave them alone with each other and their increasing paranoia. In a short time, panic sets in and the citizens turn on one another, searching for scapegoats to blame and kill. As it turns out, the monsters of the title are not the visitors from another planet, but the people that already lived together on Maple Street. Those that were supposed to be neighbors.
It’s chilling sometimes, in our own dimension, how easily neighbor can be turned against neighbor. Misunderstandings and fear nurtured by irrationality can quickly turn into harsh words, angry mobs and violence. Perhaps the decision to be a neighbor or a monster is one that we make just about every day. It’s not always about the big decisions; more often than not it’s probably in the little choices we make — do we let our emotions get the best of us? Do we put our needs, wants and safety before others? Do we put others down and gossip to make ourselves feel better? Do we treat people differently based on their race or social status? How do we act when we are on the internet? And so on.
While it was written decades ago, this episode from the very first season of The Twilight Zone — and virtually every episode of its five-year run — is eerily relevant for us today. On the other hand, if there was ever a time that we needed aliens to intervene in order to get us to turn on each other, that time is long past. In our world of social distancing and social media, it seems like we are always looking for the next fight. We tend to see those who are different than us and those that disagree with us not as potential friends with whom we can talk things out, but as something completely other. There is a great danger in living this way; and no one on either side of the political spectrum is immune to it. Just like with everything else, we have to begin by taking a good, hard look at ourselves.
I’ll leave you with these chilling words said by Rod Serling — a brilliant, Jewish man, by the way — at the end of that classic episode:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is, these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
David Cooley is co-director and office manager of the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization.