My presentation is divided into three sections. First, I will give a brief overview of Becker’s theory of the nature and origin of human evil. Second, since Becker takes it as a given that humans are transcendent creatures I will look at the concept of transcendence as discussed by several contemporary thinkers. Finally, I will turn to the realm of the interpersonal and look at “breakthroughs” in relationships. These experiences are deeply meaningful and creative moments and are possible precisely because we are transcendent beings.
Becker’s Understanding of Evil
Since not all of you are familiar with Becker’s analysis of human evil, I will briefly outline some of the key features of his interpretation. To do so, I am going to turn to a short story entitled “The Verdict on the Right Honorable Ignatio Landstad Rasker, Lord Chief Justice.” The author of this story is the Danish novelist, Peter Hoeg, who is best known for his book Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I am choosing this way of leading into Becker because stories speak to our experience more effectively than theory standing alone. And my foremost concern, this evening, is to lead us into a reflection on our own lives.
The story takes place in March of 1929 in Denmark. The narrator is Hektor Landstad Rasker, the son of the chief justice. He has called together his former wife Eline, his just married son Thomas, and his new daughter-in-law, Charlotte. It is at this time that he tells Thomas and Charlotte the secret about his father’s fall from grace.
Hektor Landstad describes how at the age of twenty he became acutely aware of his and everyone else’s fate as human beings–first old age and then death. He had a disturbing dream about old age: “One day I looked in the mirror and caught sight of a shadow, a wrinkle running like a tiny, threadlike worm down across my cheek. I laughed at it and noticed that it simply grew deeper and I realized that this was the worm of time, a small and sensitive reptile, a sign of something that had just begun and that would not come to an end until everything came to an end” (Hoeg, 1998, p. 81). Since that time, Hektor adds, he has been aware that the earth waits for us, that we sleep in beds that raise us above the ground to forget this fact. With this in mind, he would rise each day with no bitterness but also with no illusion.
How did he cope with this realization? Hektor says, “To manage the strength each day to pull oneself out of one’s own grave one needs help, and this I drew from my father” (p. 81). He regarded his father as a paragon, someone who lived an upright, incorruptible, and disciplined life within an honorable and long-standing tradition. “There never has been one moment when he did not shine like a star in my eyes” (p.80). Looking at his son Thomas, he emphasizes, “even in his private life, even to me, he represented the highest, the ultimate authority in life” (p. 78).
As a male within the Rasker family, Hektor belonged to an eight generation tradition of service to Danish society and the Danish Judicial system. His accomplishments, as those of his father before him, had brought honor to him, his family, and the system to which he had dedicated his life. He conceives of himself as being part of a self-disciplined elite which holds together the flimsy structure of society while the majority of its citizens act on momentary impulses.
Having said all of this he is ready to reveal the family secret. Twenty-two years ago, he tells his entranced audience, he received a letter from his father that changed everything. He was summoned, along with a number of other people who were part of his father’s life, to a remote island where his father had a house. Whenever chief justice Ignatio Landstad was faced with especially difficult judicial decisions he retreated to this remote location. Everything pointed to this being a solemn occasion, akin to the last supper. The group, which included Ignatio’s ex-wife, Hektor’s mother, several of his colleagues and friends and a number of the women with whom he had been involved, ate a well-prepared meal but the atmosphere was anything but festive. Hektor had concluded in his own mind that his father was about to announce that he had a terminal illness. The explanation that his father gave was, from Hektor’s perspective, much worse than that.
When the Right Honorable Ignatio Landstad Rasker stood up to speak after the dinner, he had everyone’s attention. The story he told was a long one, but the essence of it, however disturbing to many of those present, was not difficult to grasp. A young man by the name of Morton Ross had appeared in his court charged with publishing a book that offended public decency because of its explicit sexual content. He was also charged with having intimate relations with a boy of sixteen.
As the judge listened to this man defend himself in court over a number of weeks he was simultaneously indignant and intrigued, dismayed and impressed. He even visited the prisoner in his cell on several occasions, a course of action that was unprecedented for him. Eventually, Morton was convicted and given a severe sentence. But on the night following the sentencing the judge had a dream in which he was he was in court as a defendant, charged with never having been alive or of having loved. He dreamt that he was found guilty.
The next day, Ignatio told his dinner guests, he went to the jail and secured the release of the prisoner. At this point in the telling of the story the cook stepped up to stand by the judge’s side and took off his chef’s hat. It became apparent that the cook was the writer Morton Ross. Hektor was already shocked to the core of his being hearing of the illegal act his father had committed. His shock turned to loathing when his father told him that he loved this man and that they were going overseas together. It did not help matters when his father added that it was his “fate to turn my back on life only to be invaded and filled–from behind as it were–with love” (Hoeg, 1998, p. 103). His shock was further compounded when his mother told his father that perhaps this was what he had always needed.
The men in the group attempted to arrest his father but the women intervened and enabled Ignatio Landstad and his lover to leave Denmark. For the next ten years Hektor received occasional letters from his father, all of which he returned unopened.
At this point, Hektor is at the end of his story. As he is preparing to leave his ex-wife, his son, and his daughter-in-law, Hektor comments that telling this story was unpleasant but he feels he had to do it, and hopes that somehow a moral might be drawn from it.
There are is a great deal that could be said about this story and certainly my summary of it is incomplete. My main question here is what moral would Ernest Becker draw from this story?
Becker would see in it a literary presentation of his own interpretation of human destructiveness as resulting from our attempt to circumvent our mortality. In his book Escape from Evil (1975), Becker writes, “Each person nourishes his immortality in the ideology of self-perpetuation to which he gives his allegiance; this gives his life the only abiding significance it can have. No wonder men go into rage over fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die” (p. 64). Thus Hektor, acutely mindful of his mortality, turns to a tradition which transcends an individual’s life span. In particular he looks to his father, Ignatio Landstad, as someone who exemplifies, par excellence, success in rising above ordinary human foibles, someone who lives a heroic life. In commenting on Freud’s concept of positive transference, the urge to deification of the other, Becker (1973) points to how we place people on pedestals so that their special powers can rub off on us. By following the example of his father in committing himself to a rich tradition of service and self-sacrifice, Hektor Landstad’s life is imbued with enduring significance.
There are three problems with our collective attempts to deal with the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death. First, our attempt to rise above our embodied nature can never be successful; the repression of our mortality is always subject to being undermined, as is so evident in this story. As Becker (1975) writes, “the terror of death still rumbles underneath the cultural repression” (p. 5). This is especially true in recent history where collective meaning systems have come into question and where there is a diminished sense of the invisible or the spiritual.
Second, in seeking meaning and importance for ourselves we deny it to others, and especially to those others who threaten our truth. Hektor and his father see themselves as above the ordinary citizens of Denmark; these people are “less than.” Moreover, when Hektor is disillusioned by what he regards as his father’s betrayal of the values he holds sacred he completely repudiates his father. We recognize that his father’s actions were not directed at him, but this is something that Hektor cannot begin to grasp since his father’s confession shatters the story which gives meaning to his life. At the social and cultural level level, we note the continuing presence in human history of a multitude of “crusades” and campaigns directed against those whose religious and political beliefs or sexual orientations are “different” and thereby a threat, just as Hektor’s father’s new life was a threat to him. I believe that if we are honest with ourselves we will recognize that this is a shared human problem, one that is right in our midst rather than an affliction found just in those outside of our own circle. Thus Becker (1975) is emphatic in his insistence that cultural meanings, be they thought of as sacred or profane, “all have in the end have same goal: to raise men above nature, to assure them that in some ways their lives count in the universe more than merely physical things count” (p. 4).
Finally, in taking refuge in a culturally constructed ideology or illusion, we narrow the range of our experiencing, thinking and living. From this perspective, Ignatio Landstad Rasker is simply a particularly dramatic exemplification of the sacrifices all of us make on an ongoing basis to manage our lives and protect our meanings. Becker (1975) reminds that we “fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation” (p. 51).
It was Becker’s hope that a social scientific analysis such as his own might help us to draw back, even in small measure, from “heroic illusions” and their dangerous consequences. At the same time, he fully recognized that humans inevitably seek significance and meaning in their lives. But he also acknowledged that there are sources of meaning that are more life-giving and less destructive than others and that there are persons of genuine and deep conviction who appear to be quite comfortable with differences. Along this line, the psychologist Gordon Allport (1968) noted, about three decades ago, that while those who regularly go to worship services are typically more prejudiced than those who do not, there is a minority of religious people who are more tolerant than either their religious compatriots or most of those who do are not involved in religion.
In his book on the thought of Ernest Becker, Daniel Liechty, suggests that one arena in which meanings that are more life-giving are found is the interpersonal. This is the domain that I will give attention to shortly, but before doing so I want to explore the notion of transcendence
In Spring of 1997, Professor Lloyd Averill gave a memorable talk, in this very room, arguing that the spiritual ought to be addressed in the halls of higher education. He defined the spiritual as “the awareness of transcendence, the experience of realities that are not bounded by time, sense, and self” (Averill, 1997, p.4).
Recently, the psychologist Amedeo Giorgi (1992) has suggested that the notion of transcendence must be taken into account if one is to understand human beings as more than just part of the natural world and more than controlled by the forces, be they social or biological, that act upon them. It is astonishing that such a fundamental aspect of our existence, however one conceptualizes it, can be overlooked or dismissed. But dismissed it is within a number of contemporary perspectives on the person, and, as Lloyd Averill noted, within most of higher education. From a psychobiological perspective such as that championed by Edmund Wilson (1998), matter is the foundation for human life and culture. From the point of view of social constructionism, which has gained a significant foothold in both psychology and sociology, humans are largely “encapsulated” within cultural, historical, linguistic, and professional traditions and perspectives (Gergen, 1989).
Although Becker’s perspective is in some ways congruent with that of social constructionism–he speaks of everything cultural as fabricated and given meaning by the mind (Becker, 1975, p. 4) –he takes it for granted that we are able to move beyond our present circumstances in imagination and in thought. It is precisely because we anticipate our own death and reflect on the meaning of our lives that we attempt to rise above nature. In Escape from Evil (1975), Becker describes the human as the animal whose “development is not prefigured by instincts and so he is open to becoming what he can. This means literally that each person is already somewhat ‘ahead of himself’ simply by virtue of being human and not animal” (p. 34). In what follows I will discuss the concept of transcendence, turning to thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Paul Tillich, Merleau-Ponty, and Karl Rahner for critical insights.
First, let me note that there are those who discuss transcendence in such a way as to exclude it from the psychological and from everyday life. For example, RichardCox (1997), who writes about the transcendent and the immanent in psychotherapy, argues that psychology deals with the immanent, that which is within our reach and within sensory experience, and religion deals with the transcendent, that which is beyond us. He seems to assume that these terms refer to separate realms rather than to understand, as the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty does, that in our experience they converge (Dillon, 1988, pp. 53-54). Further, Merleau-Ponty (1962) situates transcendence within the subject itself, claiming that “Consciousness is transcendence through and through, not transcendence undergone…but active transcendence” (p. 376). Accordingly, he characterizes human actions as “the violent transitions from what I have to what I aim to have, from what I am to what I intend to be” (p. 382). The psychologist Mary Baird Carlsen (1991), who writes about an approach to therapy which fosters “creative aging,” also discusses active transcendence. Her primary concern is with the development of the capacity for exploring alternatives as a way to overcome the despair that is likely to arise for the aging person as he or she faces losses and limitations.
Paul Tillich (1967), the eminent theologian who was an important influence on Ernest Becker, writes eloquently about self-transcendence in the context of his consideration of being and nonbeing. He points out that as human beings we are finite not only because of our mortality, our bodily nature, but because of our embeddedness within history at a personal and a collective level. But, at the same time, we can look at our own existence from a perspective that is beyond that of our immediate situation. Most importantly, we can envision our own non-being, not just in regards to our death but in regard to the possibility of the collapse of our world of meaning. We can step outside of our taken-for-granted assumptions and see ourselves as puzzling or strange creatures.
The event that in particular brings the distinction between being and nonbeing to mind for us is the disappointment or violation of an expectation, such as Hektor experienced when he heard his father’s confession. Tillich speaks of “ontic shock” when we are overwhelmed and awestruck to the point that fundamental questions about existence arise for us (Jones, 1991). That is, our movement forward in the world becomes the focus of our attention as it becomes problematic; confronted with the possibility not just of a particular frustration or loss but with nonbeing we experience anxiety. In Tillich’s (1967) words, “Nonbeing appears as the `not yet’ of being and as the `no more’ of being” (p. 189). Because we participate continuously in both being and nonbeing, anxiety–evoked by the fear of nonbeing–is omnipresent in human life. Finally, Tillich speaks of “being-itself,” “the power of being,” or the “ground of our being” as that which is not a thing and has neither beginning nor end. In traditional language this is God.
Paul Tillich taught at the University of Marburg with Martin Heidegger and acknowledges Heidegger’s influence on his thinking (Spiegelberg, 1982). Tillich’s analysis of the meaning of anxiety, for instance, clearly echoes Heidegger’s (1962\1927) words in Being and time. Here I follow Heidegger’s analysis of transcendence in his 1975 book, The basic problems of phenomenology. In elaborating on the fundamentally relational nature of human existence (Dasein), Heidegger emphasizes that this is, from the outset, an existence with others, and that “they join with us in constituting the world” (p. 297). We are able to experience the other as a thou, and can similarly be experienced as a “thou” by the other. “For `thou’ means `you who are with me in a world'” (p. 298).
It is when Heidegger attempts to clarify how the structure of being-in-the-world is founded in temporality that he specifically addresses the concept of transcendence. He rejects the more popular use of the word where the transcendent refers to God, the otherworldly, or that which is “outside of the subject.” The whole notion of that which is outside the subject implies that the person is somehow encapsulated within the self rather than existing in the world. He concludes that “the transcending beings are not the objects–things can never transcend or be transcendent; rather, it is the `subjects’–in the rightly understood sense of the Dasein–which transcend, step through and step over themselves” (p. 299). This is the same position that Merleau-Ponty takes, namely, that existence or selfhood always entails stepping beyond. And this is where Heidegger makes the link with temporality–to be human is to be constantly living with possibility.
Karl Rahner, one of the most productive and creative Catholic theologians in this century has also addressed the issue of transcendence. Although he was Heidegger’s student for several years he was also an original thinker with a distinctive agenda. Rahner’s approach is of particular interest to me because he explicitly acknowledges that in the human sciences, including theology, assertions must be tested against personal experience of the issue at hand, that theological reflection must start with shared human existence (Dych, 1980), and that “reflection never totally includes the original experience” (Rahner, 1974\1970, p. 152). In a word, in these respects his approach is phenomenological.
When Rahner refers to transcendence, he speaks of “transcendental experience” by which he means not a specific experience but an aspect of our existence in the world. In any experience, we are aware not just of what we experience but also, at least implicitly, of ourselves as experiencing and knowing subjects. Secondly, we are aware that the self which we are is not just determined by the surrounding world. Given especially the second feature, we are aware of ourselves as having some responsibility, as having freedom to choose. Moreover, we are aware of ourselves as having knowledge but also as recognizing the limits of this knowledge and of the inexhaustible possibilities of finding out more. As one of Rahner’s interpreters puts it, “Because we are self-conscious and free we experience our hopes, our desires, our lives and our life as a question: Does it all make sense, does it have any ultimate meaning?” (Dych, 1980, p.6). This radical questioning process is at the heart of subjectivity for Rahner (Carr, 1980).
In attempting to begin to describe the experience of God, what he assumes to be universal even if not named or recognized as such, Rahner (1969\1964) suggests that these dimensions are more likely to become acknowledged in some way when we are in a crisis that takes us out of the distractions of habitual life and when we are feeling most alone. At that point, he writes, the person “finds himself called to account for his actions to that silent and infinite reality which is not ours to shape or control, which exists and is not subject to us, that which is most interior to us and most different from us at the same time” (p. 157).
Rahner’s discussion of the interpersonal is worth noting in the context of this presentation. In a chapter on “Unity of the love of neighbor and love of God,” Rahner (1969\1964) maintains that the love of another is the deepest act of which humans are capable. That is to say, it is not just an experience where the person meets the other but where he or she possesses and meets the self completely and opens up to the mystery of life. By the experience of mystery Rahner means “the experience of the unattainable and the incomprehensible” (Dych, 1980, p. 9).
As I conclude this section, I want to turn to James Jones (1991), who is both a psychoanalyst and a religious thinker, since he addresses the question of whether transcendence belongs to the subject or whether the transcendent is something outside of the subject. His conclusion is that the distinction is a false one. Jones (1991) writes: “The experience of the sacred has a transcendental, numinous quality not because the sacred is wholly other but because such experiences resonate with the primal originating depths of selfhood” (p. 125).
But these ideas about transcendence, however profound, are of little value, unless we can see their connection with our own experience and lives. It is time to turn to the everyday.
Transcendence in the Everyday
First, I must confess that in using the word “everyday” I am being a little tricky insofar as I am exploiting the fact that the word has several meanings. First, the everyday refers to the ordinary, our daily activity and habits. I do mean to include this. But there is more. The philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote of the life world (or lebenswelt) as “the encompassing world of our immediate experience” (Spiegelberg, 1982, p. 747), that everyday world which is both presupposed and yet not really attended to by either science or common sense. Let me clarify by use of an example.
In her most recent book, Amazing Grace (1998), Kathleen Norris has a chapter where she writes about silence. When she worked as an artist in elementary schools, she wanted the children to experience silence and she accomplished this by giving them exercises where first they made as much noise as possible and then they were giving instructions for just sitting silently at their desks. She was impressed that when the children wrote about making noises they were entirely unoriginal, but when they wrote about silence, a new experience for most of them, they were remarkably creative. Thus one little girl wrote “Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go” (Norris, 1998, p. 17). Here we have the life world–the world of everyday experience–re-visited in an attitude of wonder and thus seen in a new way. The limitation of social constructionism is that it does not adequately take into account human subjectivity and the dialogue with experience that gives rise to creative expression. These are the things that we have to pay attention to if we are going to find our way beyond the kind of restrictive ideologies about which Becker is so concerned.
Now let me turn to the realm of the interpersonal, acknowledging that I have taken some time to get here. For much of my adult life I have been intrigued by the paradoxical nature of human relationships–at how repetitive and unfree they are as well as at the remarkable way in which they can change. Some years ago, I wrote about what I have called “Seeing a significant other as if for the first time” (Halling, 1983), attempting to capture some of the essential dimensions of such breakthroughs or epiphanies occurring within the context of ongoing relationships.
Our existence is so fundamentally interpersonal that we typically take for granted our connections with and understanding of the people in our lives, even those who are our intimates. How well do we really know those people with whom we have a close relationship, whether they are friends or lovers, family members or long-term co-workers? We are at least partly conscious of their role or importance in our lives, but to what extent do we know something of their points of view, of the world that they inhabit, of what really matters to them? Rarely do we even wonder how it is possible that two human beings can enter into a dialogue with each other and achieve a genuine measure of understanding. The kinds of epiphanies or moments of surprise to which I have alluded awaken in us fundamental questions about human relations and what it means to know another in an intimate way. In these moments our personal illusions about the other are shattered.
These breakthroughs are revealing not just of the other person but of what it means to be human and of the horizon within which relationships exist. These shifts within relationship are not just about learning new content or information about the other–for that matter they are not just about the other–but of how we are together and how we are in the world. They are, in a word, in the domain of Buber’s notion of the shift from an I-it to an I-Thou relationship. For Martin Buber, the realm of dialogue, of the I-Thou relationship, is where there is fullness of participation and where freedom and infinity is found. Thus Buber (1965) writes, “Man can become whole not in virtue of a relation to himself but only in virtue of a relation to another self. This other self may be just as limited and conditioned as he is; in being together the unlimited and the unconditioned is experienced” (p. 168).
What follows are excerpts from three descriptions. The first two accounts were in the form of written descriptions, and the third was given in the course of two in-depth interviews. After reading them, I will offer some reflections on their significance.
1. A twenty-one year old college student wrote about her last visits with her father, as he was dying from cancer. When she returned to see him at the end of Spring quarter she found him much thinner, gaunt, and tired and somber. From their conversations, it became evident to her that he was close to death and that he had faced and accepted this reality. Her mother hoped that she would somehow persuade him to hold on to life, but she told him that she can accept whatever decision he makes. At this point in his illness, her father responded to what she said with nods. The following are brief excerpts from her description, written half a year after the fact:
I remained there, silent and stroking my father’s hands. The atmosphere was a combination of moods, emotions, and thoughts. I didn’t want to face death; death is one of those things which happens to other people and my father would never die. But here he was sitting in front of me and the only thing he possessed was his humanity. I was aware of my own selfishness in wanting to cling to him, to make him live. And yet, I knew that if you love someone, you must let them be free; you must let him be. If both of us were to grow, I had to let him go. I had to let him know. I had talked to my father that way hoping that he would sense my support, my maturity, my love…
I couldn’t ask why, why is this man dying, and why is he dying now? I knew enough of my father’s own faith and belief structure to know that he was ready to die…Who was I to question his beliefs, wishes and decisions? The whole situation seemed so much out of my control, beyond my comprehension, desires, intentions, and maybe even beyond his. This was something providential, mysterious, and awesome. I had to accept it, no questions asked.
How could I ever really see and appreciate this man as he truly was? How could we experience each other in an authentic relationship now that he was dying? But there was peace in my heart. I did not preoccupy my time by asking questions why or accusing the God I believe in with injustice for taking this man out of my life. It gave me an opportunity to experience life as it truly was and is. I couldn’t argue with the sharp penetrating reality of death. I learned that I could not possess another person, not even in my ideas of him. No matter how much claim I have on another person, death brings to consciousness the limitations in human relationships. I must be and I must let others be.
2. In this second description, another young woman described how she came to see her friend’s brother in a new way, under circumstances that at first sight were quite unremarkable. She was visiting him at his apartment and as she was looking through his refrigerator, the phone rang. “I tried not to listen to what was happening on the phone,” she wrote. “I turned to close the door and ask Wayne where a skillet was and stopped. The light from the kitchen fell on him for a second and in that second I saw Wayne not as Gary’s brother but as Wayne.” Later in her account she elaborated, “The light falling on his face shadowed his eyes and brought out his cheekbones and his nose and sculptured his face. For that second I seemed to see what he was and what he could become. A strong man given to excessive [sic] which could be controlled when he found out what or who he was looking for.”
3. This third account was given by a psychotherapist who talked about how an intense conflict with a colleague was resolved. Linda had instantly taken a dislike to Heather who was hired at the social service agency where Linda had been employed for several years. From the moment they met, Linda got a vividly unfavorable impression of her new colleague as someone who was aggressive, manipulative, condescending, and intrusive. Occasionally, Heather came into Linda’s office to tell her about some recent accomplishment with a client, and each time Linda’s inner response was, “Oh my God, get her away from me, get her out, it is impossible, she is impossible.”
The turning point in their relationship came several months after they first met. Linda walked into Heather’s office and was astonished to find her crying, and, in contrast to her usual manner, “not up to anything.” In the course of the conversation which ensued, she found out that Heather was grieving for a friend who had terminal cancer, and who was also someone Linda greatly admired. Learning about this woman’s illness was a shock for Linda, “But more than anything else I was kind of struck by the look on Heather’s face. The pain and the vulnerability, the weakness, just being a person with human feelings and pain.” This turning point led to the formation of a friendship, although not one that was necessarily easy. But there is another part of Linda’s description that I want to highlight here. Previous to this encounter, Linda had felt extremely guarded and uncomfortable because of her conflicted relationship with Heather. In what follows she describes her new sense of freedom and connection that came after this incident:
I guess I felt liberated, and I ended up by the end of that session with the client feeling much more in touch with what living and dying are all about, and the temporary nature of human living. Somehow being really in touch with that through the tragic news of Cathie’s illness, somehow enabled me to be more, I don’t know…to be in tune in such a way that was helpful to the client…
The first point I would make is that these descriptions speak of something that all of us are familiar with, in one form or another, at one level or another. Who has not been awakened to the presence of another person, whatever the circumstances may have been? For this reason, I look at these stories not as “evidence” but as exemplars, as starting points for reflections on transcendence and relationships.
In each case, the narrator transcends, steps beyond, moves forward in such a way that the moving forward becomes directly apparent, inescapably evident. But it is as much a being called as an action, it is as much being receptive as being active, it is as much being moved as moving. There is a quality of surprise, even of awe, as one’s habitual ways of seeing and responding to the other give way to a new experience, a new relationship.
The stepping beyond involves a profound and compelling recognition of the personhood of the other. We are witness to the other as a knowing and a feeling subject, and as transcending our previous conception of him or her. But we are also more than witness to–the other is valued, appreciated, or loved. By comparison, we were previously spectators or observers of the other as someone already known, complacent within our “knowledge” or our lack of interest.
The circumstances vary significantly. The first description, at least, fits Tillich’s notion of “ontic” shock, as well as Rahner’s discussion of a crisis which takes us out of the distractions of everyday life. So much of the world that is familiar to this young woman changes with her father’s death. She becomes acutely aware of human finitude, of the separation and the separateness between herself and her father, of her own smallness and vulnerability. Existence becomes a question, a mystery, in the sense meant by Tillich and Rahner.
The second description, does not involve a crisis or a dramatic event. Two people are together, one answers a phone, the other looks at him, noticing how the light falls on his face, allowing her to look at it anew–and as if for the first time. It takes so much–or so little. “The familiar swallows up everything. It is bottomless. When experience fades into the familiar, it loses substance, it becomes a ghost,” writes Donnel Stern (1983, p. 92). What is swallowed up is not just “content,” but the very meaning of being a person which is nonetheless always implicitly ongoing. The light casting a shadow on a person’s face reveals something about the other for the self who notices, who is alerted, who moves forward. The possibility of such realizations are, then, ever present, as are the factors that stand in the way. Illness, suffering, and death have a way of startling us into awareness but we should not overlook those moments of recognition that can come with subtle shifts in our everyday circumstances.
The movement of the self in these descriptions is in the direction of freedom (in the sense of agency) and a more mindful participation in life. Linda speaks specifically of being liberated and of being more in touch with what living and dying are all about, and the woman who sees her friend’s brother as himself thereby relates to him on a more personal basis. In the case of the daughter who struggles to accept her father’s death there is a mixture of anguish and acceptance, hope and despair giving us a keen sense of a person who is struggling, making decisions, moving back and forth, and who has become acutely sensitive to the mystery of life. “I learned that I could not possess another person, not even in my ideas of him.”
In none of these descriptions is there a sense of flight from the world, of transcendence as a movement from the immanent to the otherworldly. When Rahner (1969\1964) suggests that the love of another is the deepest act of which persons are capable he is also rejecting the dichotomy between the immanent and the transcendent, between the worldly and the otherworldly. To love another human being requires a concrete engagement with that other person as an embodied subject with a particular point of view, concerns, and biography. To be moved, to be affected, by the situation of the other is an embodied experience, an experience of one’s whole being. Thus, in “transcending” we do not move beyond the world but more deeply into it, and in being affected by “the other” we reconnect with ourselves as subjects who have some measure of freedom. In these moments, we do not turn away from the precariousness of existence but embrace all of who we are as we more fully partake of life.
The above reflections are both preliminary and tentative, and they do not sufficiently discuss the connection between the ideas of the thinkers I have referred to and the descriptions of transcendence made visible within the realm of the interpersonal. In particular, I have said little about mystery, the ground of our being, and that “silent and infinite reality” of which Tillich and Rahner speak. But these descriptions do refer to “mystery,” to “a deeper sense of what life is about,” sometimes directly and sometimes between the lines. They are examples of experiences that give meaning to our lives, meaning that arises out of a sense of connection with others and with something beyond ourselves. They are deeply personal and creative experiences, affirmations of our aliveness and of our common humanity.
In the preface to Escape from Evil (1975), Becker aligns himself with a pessimism that does not exclude hope but takes into account reality, rather than with cynicism or with a naive optimism (xviii). The French phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel (1962) has suggested that hope belongs to those who have not been hardened by life (p. 51), and that it requires a patient participation in experience as a process rather than a standing back from it as spectators.
In light of these insights, we can readily see how hope is alive in the three stories we have just considered. Let me take this one step further. My colleague Georg Kunz (1998) in his new book on Levinas and an Alternative Paradigm for Psychology points out how that there is little appreciation for paradox either in psychology or in our society generally. Most fundamentally, Georg Kunz suggests, there is a lack of recognition of the weakness of the apparently powerful or the power of the apparently weak. In the present context, I would like to suggest that we also think about the paradox of the significant and the insignificant. We have seen something about the importance of being receptive to the apparently insignificant–a moment of silence, light falling on a familiar face, one’s own sense of despair and helplessness, the pain and vulnerability of another person.
These “insignificant” events do not count for much in the market place, they do not make the front pages of newspapers. And they barely register if we become hardened to experience. But they are fundamental in reminding us of who we are just as they enable our moving forward as members of the human community. This is where there is life.