WJW: The other, the self
"We human beings are uneasy about what truly occurs deep inside the other, even if that Other is someone we love."
So what have you done for me lately?
An enormous tension plagues us in our relationships with others. Most often, we have a profound desire to be connected to others, to know them. But this is only half the story. At other times we are afraid of that knowledge and how that knowledge may bring with it responsibility and all kinds of unanticipated complexities. We retreat into the self. David Grossman, the Israeli novelist, explores themes of other and self in his book, Writing in the Dark. He writes of the "mysterious, nonverbal, unprocessed core, that which cannot be subjected to any social taming, to any refinement, politeness or tact" in another person that generates genuine discomfort in ourselves. He suggests that even among those who are happily married for a long time there exists an "unspoken agreement (whose application, incidentally requires a most sophisticated and nuanced form of collaboration!), the main tenet of which is that it is best not to know one's partner through and through." We implicitly agree to offer each other psychic space that goes unexplored.
As a writer, Grossman initially believed that the story form is a way that authors come to know themselves. A common refrain in creative writing courses is "write what you know." Yet what most people find truly intriguing about the writing process is the discovery of another person outside of the self. Over time, Grossman concedes that his views on this have changed: "the more I write, the more I feel the force of the other...To be able to touch, if only for a moment, the blaze that burns within another human being."
How does this quest for the other translate into the realm of the spirit? Today, many people are trying to find themselves. People talk about the search for meaning, enlightenment, self-knowledge, mystical union. We hear a great deal about spiritual journeys. Yet all of this language is often an exercise in self-absorption. If you read mystical testimonies carefully, what emerges is not self-discovery but harmony with the world at large. Fragmentation and separation falls away, and we find ourselves blissfully at peace with the universe. This peace comes most authentically from reaching outward, not reaching inward.
My friend, Rabbi Bill Hamilton, shared with me a beautiful teaching from A.J. Heschel's, God In Search of Man when we were discussing Grossman's book: "Oneness is the norm, the standard and the goal. If in the afterglow of a religious insight we can see a way to gather up our scattered lives, to unite what lies in strife - we know it is a guidepost on His way." I love the expression "the afterglow of a religious insight." In that moment, Heschel alerts us to what brings us together in moments of strife, even if that strife is about the dichotomous identities within that get turned, in a religious moment, into something whole. Heschel continues by stating that when we experience separateness, it ultimately takes us away from God: "If a thought generates pride, separation from other people's suffering, unawareness of the dangers of evil - we know it is a deviation from His way."
When people tell me that they are learning about Judaism because they want to find themselves, I wonder if they realize that Judaism is more about losing the self. A few months ago, I came across a question posed by a Vietnamese sage. He believed that the world would only get better if people asked those around them one simple question: what can I do to love you better? Try it with the people you love.
We cannot truly fathom the mysterious terrain of someone else, but - with curiosity - we can find out how to get closer. If we get over the fear of otherness, we may just bridge the vast abyss that separates people from each other and ourselves from God.
So what have I done for you lately?
January 5, 2011; 8:08 PM ET
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