Photo Credit: Alex Alvarez

Why There are So Few Good Neighbors

How to Expand Your Self-Improvement to Your Community

Paul Alan Aspen
9 min readMay 25, 2021


I’m really happy the modern self-improvement industry is helping people, but there’s a real dark side:

I’m hugely supportive of people improving themselves, but it is the results that matter. The plain truth is that we find happiness in community, not ourselves. We are social animals.

Does being called an animal make you uncomfortable? It’s the center of this century’s religious war.

Photo Credit: Frank Busch

Why Satisfaction is So Hard to Find

One of the greatest difficulties in the modern world is that the religious debate on the role of science has separated us from finding both short-term and long-term satisfaction: happiness and fulfillment.

The modern debate has two sides: the “I ❤ Science” crowd that places a tremendous emphasis on happiness as the chief sacrament of its church, which calls us animals and denies the soul, and the established religions who responded to this newcomer by focusing on the fulfillment of the inner soul, teaching total ignorance or even direct denial of our animal needs and wants.

This disconnect is a modern squabble. Our ancestors found no such difficulty:

Man…is a tame or civilized animal; never the less, he requires proper instruction and a fortunate nature, and then of all animals he becomes the most divine and most civilized; but if he be insufficiently or ill- educated he is the most savage of earthly creatures.

— Plato, Aristotle’s teacher

A “civilized animal” as the answer to this debate? Neat, but what does that mean, Plato?

As usual, we have to ground his idealistic observations.

Photo Credit: Braydon Anderson

What It Means to Be a Civilized Animal

Since the dictionary definitions don’t help much in defining civilized or animal, I’ll give you my working definitions:

  • Civilized: Long-term, beneficial and wise actions — building to last
  • Animal: Satisfying and sociable happiness — enjoying today

Man is a civilized animal, not an animal that has been civilized. A civilized animal isn’t two separate things slammed together. It is one complete thing. After all, dogs are animals that have been civilized from their lupine counterparts. We do not mean dogs here.

We are both social creatures and individual souls, possessed of both our animal needs from food to safety to companionship and our needs for purpose and progress and respect. We have our feet in both worlds simultaneously.

It means we have a powerful animal side that can absolutely run wild and cause danger to others and ourselves in its shortsighted, reactive pursuits. It means we have a civilized, austere side that can organize and control others, enslaving and abusing others as the ultimate expression of power.

Both sides can be very dangerous if not balanced. The ox and the sharp plow are individually dangerous to just have around, but together they can work wonders. The two can work as a team.

Our angers and animal drives can motivate us to good deeds as well as evil. Our desire for safety and harmony can turn us toward horrible ends as well as beneficial ones. Gandhi and Hitler were both fighting the same battle against foreign oppressors to save a self-destructive and forlorn people with no hope in sight.

One’s leadership fills us with revulsion, the other with awe.

Returning to the two sides of the modern religious debate, I find plenty of reasonable, sensible people somewhere in the middle. Even if someone stolidly belongs to one side or the other, everyone can see there is a problem. Both sides are so zealous, the stakes so high and the consequences so dire.

The problem cannot be solved so long as the extremists are the only ones offering solutions.

A child of the modern age, I found myself on a journey between the two camps. I am glad I stumbled upon the answer in the ancients’ mouths after my time raised in one camp and then exploring the other, coming away highly-dissatisfied with each. Both are top-down, “shut up you dirty peasant” priestly systems that ignore key components of the human experience.

If you find yourself in the middle also, embrace being a civilized animal. You’ll be much happier with your life than are the prune-faced, scowling harpies at the ends of the bell curve. Aristotle called this same invitation the virtue of the mean, or the middle.

Photo Credit: Job Flobrant

Happiness is Balance, Not an Achievement

Happiness comes from momentary affirmations that are obvious to every sense: a good meal, a safe bed, the immediate attention and presence of close friends, the feeling of belonging experienced while fitting in with a crowd.

Fulfillment comes from deeper wellsprings in our souls: honesty and authenticity, the completion of an act of creation, an affirmation of our purpose and intent, the knowledge that a far-flung friend exists, the evidence of our work’s inner life whether it be a business, a home, or a child you have labored to produce and raise.

Self-help resources frequently only work with one hand at a time. Focus on this to feel happy or less sad, focus on this to feel fulfillment. Here’s how to make friends, here’s how to sell things and get financial security.

That focus might enable the guru to make a point or three, but it’s difficult to reshape a messy, interrelated life by addressing one topic.

To be a civilized animal means to work with both hands at once. It means you are the self-sacrificing civilized mind willing to plant trees whose shade you will never enjoy while also being frisky and free to spend a little too much on dinner without feeling guilty.

It’s a hard line to walk, because the rules are more negatives than positive commands: Don’t go to excess. Don’t be too cautious. Don’t be undisciplined, don’t be wild.

It’s really easy to be over-civilized, effete, unwilling to do the hard work and retreating behind the already-established walls and wringing your well-intentioned hands and tut-tutting kids these days. It’s equally easy to go feral, worshipping yourself and refusing to maintain or respect the establishment that shelters you.

External or top-down approaches don’t seem to work. Self-improvement is so emphatic that it inherently imbalances this paradigm. Traditions are an anchor, but that anchor isn’t always set in that virtuous balance point between the two sides. Especially with the bad actors that are always prowling about, I don’t think a governmental utopia is any closer than I am to that balance point.

But we sure can try to balance. It’s worth it even if it doesn’t go very far outside our door. A grassroots approach seems more likely to succeed.

I’ve had this vision for a long time, of trying to be a civilized animal. I named my company Civilized Animal Productions, and even before I was a parent I tried my poor young heart out to make others’ children little civilized animals when I taught at a school.

Now I have my own kids. I’m thrilled with how I’m raising them up, even though many days are equally clouded with tears and accusations that I’m a bad daddy as they are with the sunshine of hugs and joyful off-key singing.

If you’re a parent, you know what I mean. It’s not always happy even though you’re fulfilled, especially with all the other interests and obligations of breadwinning and maintenance that get in the way.

The real key isn’t any work you can do all on your lonesome self, though. It takes people. Happiness and fulfillment definitely start in the home, but a vibrant, vital life you’re proud of extends beyond your own threshold.

As a parent, balancing feels impossible. If you’re strict, you are also self-critical all the time because you’re causing all of the tears. If you’re lax, you have nagging doubts about whether your children will be ok when they get outside your home. Most bounce from one strategy to the other, hoping it’ll balance out.

Unfortunately, we typically try to do this work in isolation.

Photo Credit: Randy Fath

How to Build a Healthy Community

I’m sure you’ve noticed, but stability comes from being around other people. Seeing how other parents raise their kids. Talking with them and getting support.

Support seems to vanish so quickly, though. When you ask for it, you might even feel guilt or shame, or like you’re judged, or incompetent. After all, you’re struggling with your kids when so-and-so has nine!

Parenting is the world’s true loneliest job. You’re the president or First Lady and workforce and army of the world’s least-solvent nation and you didn’t even get elected!

It’s so easy to let your energy just flow into the little ones, your spouse when you get a chance, your friends and neighbors when there’s an emergency…
It can really burn you out and feel like total chaos.

It’s easy to withdraw, it’s easy to say feeling guilty or callous is good or normal.

It’s easy to say, “Well, kids are resilient.”

The right path isn’t usually easy.

If you are a parent, you’re the core of a community but the community doesn’t feel very supportive most times. Other parents are sympathetic, but you don’t want to whine and complain.

You have to build a support network, but that is hard to do when you’re already weary just maintaining an acceptable level of chaos each day.

If you’re burned out, but your goal is to be that good neighbor, that civilized animal who can help others instead of pouring all your energy out on your own chaos, here are the three steps:

  1. You must have peace yourself. Parents set the tone in the home but, just as Greg Heibert said, you cannot give what you don’t have. Peace is like a fire: It’s as powerful and contagious as it is vulnerable. It starts with you. You are your power base, you must be stable.
  2. You must maintain peace within your household. Without a stable footing, you can’t reach out. If your own situation is perilous financially or socially, trying to help someone else might just as easily result in your family getting sucked into messy chaos too. You unlock your ability to put energy outward into your world by having a stable home.
  3. You must consistently and deliberately reach out to your neighbors in order to be allowed to help. Yes, allowed. If you’ve never turned down help from someone you don’t trust, or forced to stop a task so someone more skilled could do it, I would like to shake your father’s hand. We only allow people to help to the degree that we trust them to maintain their respect for us when they see our troubles.

This is my mission in life, to help people build their families and communities up. Since my personal tragedy last December, I made something especially for parents who want to escape the chaos and be peacemakers not only in their own lives, but their children’s lives, friends’ lives, neighbors’ lives, and wider communities.

It’s called the Chaos Control Project, and it’s for civilized animals.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to already be perfect. I designed it for people who don’t have it all together. If you are on that road at all, I invite you to invest in your own strength, improve your home life whether you have kids or not, and spread that peace to your whole community.

I want there to be more good neighbors, after all. Don’t you?



Paul Alan Aspen - I help visual designers get recognized by telling stories of their skills in a way clients will understand - courses & writing services for hire