A woman standing in a checkout line overheard a grandmother repeatedly discounting her preschool-aged grandson’s observations. The woman smiled at the boy and reminded him that he had good things to say. The boy’s eyes sparkled, and he continued to express himself. When she told the story to a friend, they judged her in front of other friends for meddling in other people’s business. She was socially shamed for ‘sticking her nose’ into someone else’s problems.
Why is staying out of people’s business socially laudable? Why has sideline and bystander behavior become so normalized? What are the social consequences?
No one meddled when, at Richmond High School in California in 2009, about 20 onlookers watched 10 others beat and gang-raped a female classmate.
No one meddled when a young teen in our town was targeted relentlessly on Facebook for being gay. No one–no parents, no teens—came to his aid, as others laughed and enjoyed the drama at his expense. He had a mental breakdown and had to leave school.
No one meddled when an older woman lived among several neighbors she barely knew. Everyone kept to themselves. One day, she fell and broke her hip, and couldn’t reach the phone or get up to get help. She was alone, stuck in that position, for three days.
And no one meddled when a young man disclosed to some friends that he was having persistent suicidal thoughts and desires. His friends thought he was just having a hard time; they figured it would pass, and just kept partying with him instead of getting him help from adult professionals. He jumped in front of a train.
Over 40 percent of eligible voters did not cast their vote in our latest presidential election. Staying out of other people’s business by not voting could have cost us a more vibrant democracy.
Making others’ well-being our imperative could help us solve a lot of big problems. What if, instead of being habitual onlookers, we cultivated the art of meddling?
The Definition of ‘Meddle’
Meddle: early 14th C., ‘to mingle, blend, mix’ from Old North French meddler (Old French mesler, 12th C, modern French mêler); ‘to mix, mingle, to meddle’ from Vulgar Latin *misculare (source of Provençal mesclar, Spanish mezclar, Italian mescolare, meschiare), from Latin miscere ‘to mix.’ From late 14th C. as ‘busy oneself, be concerned with, engage in;’ also disparagingly ‘interfere, be officious, make a nuisance of oneself’ (the notion is of meddling too much).
What if we had less remote viewing and more full-on participation? Less despairing that helping in a small way isn’t enough, and more believing that even minor helpful deeds contribute to a larger good?
James Hillman, one of the world’s most accomplished philosophers and depth psychologists, once remarked that he was tired of hearing how pathological ‘co-dependency’ was. He believed the world was not co-dependent enough. Making others’ well-being our imperative could help us solve a lot of big problems. More ‘mixing it up with others’ could solve the problem of loneliness, which medical research shows is as dangerous to our health as 15 cigarettes a day.
The more we know people, the more we feel them as part of us. More social blending would generate greater social capital, which is a measure of the value of connections we have and our sense of safety. Social capital is higher in places where people feel looked after and responsible for each other. Sociologists find that higher social capital is strongly linked to better health outcomes; both mentally and physically. Countries with higher social capital have lower maternal death rates, better child well-being, less mental illness, and fewer people in prison. When people know one another, and each other’s concerns and interests, health and well-being improve.
Getting more engaged may mean being awkward or socially clumsy; but it can lead to great rewards for both ourselves and others.
Prime Examples of Stellar Meddling
A woman stopped to help a homeless man cross the street who was having problems juggling his bags and his shopping cart. It took her an extra few minutes. Their eyes met for a moment and the man snarled a brief “thank you.” In that moment, they saw each other’s humanity and a divide was lessened.
Jennifer recently met the awesome female chief of police in our town. When she found out she was single, she mentioned to one of her favorite single male friends that he should ask her out. Within a few weeks, they took Jennifer out to dinner to thank her for ‘meddling.’
On the freeway, a friend’s partner came upon an auto accident that had just happened. He pulled over, got out, and walked over to the car that had sustained extensive damage. He could smell car battery fumes and knew the man trapped inside might be poisoned or that the car could explode into flames. He grabbed the car’s door while reassuring the man inside, and pulled it off to save the man’s life.
Offering Instead of Righteousness or Insistence
Let’s consider why meddling gets such a bad rap. Perhaps it is because we associate it with interference and indirect manipulations by third parties. It may involve people intruding on our privacy when we have asked them to leave us well enough alone. It could also be that being super involved with each other would challenge the current power model of dominion by a relative few over the enormous many. If we all had a serious stake in the welfare of all members of our communities, it would be harder to have some people go without food, health care, and shelter. The more we know people, the more we feel them as part of us and the harder it becomes to tolerate social inequity.
The art of meddling does require distinguishing unwelcome advice-giving and unsolicited pushiness from helpful concern. Be direct with your interventions instead of indirectly trying to manipulate or control people, or talk about people behind their back.
Here are some simple ground rules:
• Share your wisdom or skill only up until the point they tell you to back off or stop.
• Come from a place of offering instead of righteousness or insistence.
• Check your motivation and make sure it is about positive involvement and noble intentions.
If sticking our nose into each other’s affairs uplifts the possibilities of love, life, dignity, and wellbeing, then it seems a worthy stretch of our mettle. Getting more onto the playing field of life, and out of the bleachers, could not only increase our own sense of connection; it could lead to the transformation of our current insider/outsider social construct. It has the potential to foster a more sustaining narrative of learners, allies, and mentors, collaborating for a more intimate sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning.