Virginia Ironside's dilemmas: I can't deal with my neighbour's problems

"I know that in an ideal world we should be able to dispense sympathy and kindness to everyone, but some people are more difficult to help than others"

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

I feel so guilty about my next-door neighbour. He has lost his job, his wife has left him and he is being tested for cancer. I have my own difficulties trying to keep my family’s head above water, and just don’t have time to get involved. I know by the super-neat state of his garden that we wouldn’t get on, and never feel any sympathy for him when we chat in the village, though I can see he’s lonely. I know we should love our neighbours, but I can hardly cope with my own problems. No one else in the village cares about him. Any advice?

Yours sincerely, Mandy

Virginia says...

It’s terribly easy to forget that charity begins at home. Yes, it’s true that instead of spending hours beating yourself up that you’re not going out to do good works in refugee camps, it would be more worthwhile your spending half the time simply popping in on a few lonely old people nearby and having a chat with them.

And to take the argument further, rather than spending hours beating yourself up that you’re not popping in on lonely old people nearby, your time would be better used simply taking care of your family if they need you more. And further than that, rather than spending hours beating yourself up that you’re not looking after your family, unless you first take care of yourself, you won’t be in a position to dispense sweetness and light to anyone.

If your family life were going smoothly, I’m sure you’d feel far more capable of  extending the hand of friendship to your neighbour. But it’s not. You’ve got your nearest and dearest to cope with, and you honestly can’t ignore them or you’ll become like the cobbler whose children are the worst shod. Many is the psychiatrist I know whose children are complete screwed up because he spends  so much time on his patients.

Another point: I know that in an ideal world we should be able to dispense sympathy and kindness to everyone, but some people are more difficult to help than others. Your neighbour does, I’m sure, need company and help, but, as they say, he’s got a funny way of showing it. The people who get most help are the people who are most grateful – people whose faces burst into a big smile when they see you and, instead of begging you to stay when you leave, rather, telling you how kind you are simply to have popped in in the first place.

In the case of your neighbour, I imagine it wouldn’t be easy getting him to accept help. You’d have to deliver it in a roundabout way, overcoming his prickliness and, I suspect, in the end getting little thanks for anything you managed to do for him. He appears to have pushed everyone else away from him – he has no visitors and no one else in the village cares about him. Even his wife has left him. You’d have to be a saint to bully your way through his defences. and would it be worth it, particularly when there are so many more appreciative people waiting for your help?

You’re not a saint, Mandy. You’re a human being. You’re being as kind and good as you can. I’m sure, if he were ever to ask for help, you’d be there to give it. But in the meantime, don’t overstretch yourself or waste time feeling guilty,or you’ll find that in the end it’ll be you who’s the one in need – and incapable of helping anyone else at all.

Readers say...

Helping him will help you, too

“A trouble shared is a trouble halved” and can be very therapeutic for both parties.

Years ago, at a very low time in my life, I went to visit, albeit reluctantly, an old lady who had just come out of hospital after major surgery. She was more interested in talking to me about my problems, and I went home feeling that chatting to her had lifted the burden I was carrying. Talk to your neighbour, he may well bring you comfort.

Gillian Cook, by email

Show some compassion

Your letter makes uncomfortable reading. It sounds to me as though you are looking not for a way to solve your poor neighbour’s problems, but for permission to walk on by and avoid getting involved. You want to keep your distance, but keep a clear conscience as well, but I don’t think you can have it both ways.

There’s no need to take the “love thy neighbour” thing quite so literallly: you don’t actually have to want to be best friends with this man in order to get involved enough to help him with his problems and provide a bit of company for him. However busy you are, you must be able to find time to ask him round for a cup of tea now now and then, and listen while he tells you the latest news about his cancer, or to drop off a small gift – a plant for the garden or a box of chocolates – and ask if there’s anything he needs. You’ll never be soul mates – I’m sure he doesn’t want this any more than you do – but a bit of compassion is not much to ask.

Ursula, by email

Team up with the neighbours

Yours is the sort of attitude that explains how we have all become so isolated from each other and why loneliness among elderly people is such a problem.

It’s a shame that you don’t particularly like your neighbour, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help him. You’re busy with your family and you can’t take on the burden of caring for your neighbour on your own, but surely you can encourage some of the others in the village to team up with you to make sure that, when there are events and meetings around the village, someone makes sure this lonely man is asked along. It’s only decent.

Michael Moss, by email

Next week's dilemma

My husband told me a few months ago that a friend of mine had made a pass at him at a party. He thought it was funny – he didn’t do anything about it – but I can’t get it out of my mind. I feel like going round and confronting her and telling her husband, but a mutual friend is very against the idea. She is rather a pious woman and she tells me I must forgive her. But how can you forgive someone who’s betrayed you like this? I am so angry that every few days, even months later, I have to stop myself going round and throwing a brick through her window – or worse. What do you think I should do?

Yours sincerely,


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