For many years in the Netherlands there has been a very successful television programme called ‘de Rijdende Rechter’ (the Travelling Judge) in which a judge, Frank Visser, tries to solve painful, long-lasting quarrels between neighbours. It’s not so much the judgment that I find interesting in this programme, but the road that leads to it and the aftermath. It shows how apparently small matters can be blown up to gigantic proportions, how people can get mentally stuck in their opinions and parties kept apart by a mere psychological barrier.
Quarrelling about a tree
The problem that gave rise to the quarrel is nearly always very minor. Recently I saw, for instance, an episode that centred on a quarrel about a tree that according to one neighbor was growing too close to his house. He thought its roots were creating cracks in the walls of his house and its overhanging branches were making the walls damp, etc. In an earlier episode, about a year ago, the Travelling Judge had already decided that the distance of the tree to the house was legally permitted, which meant that the owner was not forced to remove the tree. And so he had left it where it was. But a year later the quarrel had not yet stopped.
The owner of the tree appeared to have a large garden with many other trees in it. It would have been a small thing for him to just respect the concerns of his neighbour, and remove the tree anyway (and maybe plant a new one a little bit further from his neighbour’s house). But he hadn’t. The other neighbour had responded by regularly cutting off branches that were hanging over his house. This had annoyed the owner of the tree a lot, and a few other annoyances had developed on top of that, with the result that they tried to avoid contact as much as possible. It was clear that the legal decision to allow the tree to stand hadn’t solved the problem.
The third party
In this case the Travelling Judge had become more like a mediator. He had to try to reopen the deteriorated communication between these neighbours. As always, this turned out to be nearly impossible. Not only is the Travelling Judge the third party here in this programme, but also the people watching it. Both can see that it’s pretty pointless for the two parties to blow up their quarrel to such gigantic proportions. They’re witnessing people showing themselves to be quite small minded, struggling with psychological problems and stubbornly holding on to their own opinions. Seen from a third-party perspective, the solution to the quarrel seems quite easy to generate, even without applying the law. But obviously this had been impossible for the parties involved.
Respecting our neighbours
Small-scaled quarrels like this can make us more aware of the fact that we all have neighbours around us (even if they live a fair distance away) and have to avoid quarrels with them at all cost; that we have to make sure that little annoyances, if they arise, are recognized and dealt with immediately, before they can grow to an unmanageable, monstrous size. They might even make us realise that neighbourly quarrels on a larger scale – between countries or populations in a country, like in Syria, Gaza or the Ukraine – are not very different. In a similar way they might have started with something relatively futile – a different interpretation of a certain ancient custom, tradition or of a few sentences in a book.
As the episodes of the Travelling Judge have shown again and again, unfortunately we’re not very good at dealing with problems when they arise, and have the tendency to avoid them. And we get blind to the fact that the resulting barriers exist only in our heads.