Love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even in its most fleshly. – Thomas Mann, Magic Mountain.
In these Neuromyth.com blogposts on Sex and the Commons, I have been exploring the relationship between the sad state of our national discourse and the failures in the development of healthy physical intimacy which may be behind our social fragmentation, separation, and isolation.
In part I, I discussed the erosion of our sense of a common good, which may be produced by information overload, generational increases in anxiety, endemic loneliness, and a disembodied world of electronic communication, but has led to any sense of a common good being trumped by identity politics and the growing vulnerabilities of proliferating and diverse individualities. I suggested that there might be a connection between the erosion of a common good and the likelihood that the personal autonomy necessary to step beyond oneself into an increasingly diverse social world may be crippled by difficulties in learning how to negotiate intimacy.
In part II I drew clear attention to the sexual recession. Despite greater tolerance of both sexual behavior and variety, there is evidence for a broad withdrawal from physical intimacy extending well into adulthood. Masturbation, hookup sex, the illusion of sexual availability via the Internet, the avoidance of bad sex, and demographic increases in anxiety and inhibition all contribute. The sexual recession is likely to directly reflect our increasing difficulty with negotiating, and for younger generations learning to negotiate, the intimacies of bodily relationships with others. Such intimacy is the primary ground for not only establishing sustaining healthy relationships, but for developing the personal autonomy without which attention to greater goods is difficult to either establish or to expand.
I ended part II with a theological reflection from Stanley Grenz, but it does not take a theologian, or any specific religious commitments to understand that the nature of personhood is that we cannot be human “by ourselves,” but require mutuality and interdependence. It is sexuality that draws us out of ourselves into communion, a “one-in-another” which requires a desacralization of the boundaries of self, not as introducing impurity or pollution, but seeing sexuality as the prototypical form of embodied, relational communion, in each other becoming more than each alone. When these capacities are delayed or stunted, not only are there problems for our personal psychology, but for the development of the social autonomy that makes democracy possible. It is this which may be behind much that has become unhinged in both our political and cultural intercourse.
The Boundaries of Self: Freedom, Vulnerability, and Intimacy
We have all been affected by the increasingly isolated, internally fragmented, and even empty self the effects of which appear to be accelerating precipitously in contemporary life. Jean Twenge’s meta-analytic findings show major increases in anxiety over the latter part of the century just past. Census data show a doubling of single-person households in the space of a generation, to as many as 40% in major urban areas. Our contemporary culture of indirect, distant, electronic communication, so readily available, easily attenuates our mimetic, face-to-face, and embodied empathies. We protect our vulnerability only at great cost to our capacity for real loving intimacies with others, even our idealizations and projections run unchecked by genuine relationship. We are left only with our romantic longings, projections of our golden shadows turning love into a religion, too often blind to the redemptive qualities of our most intimate relationships. Our culture commodifies everything, abstracting things from their context, so we remain unaware (or defend ourselves from the awareness) of the working conditions behind producing that new iPad, and treat it as if it had intrinsic value independent of the system of exchange and interaction that presented it to us, or the uses to which it can be put. Our social fragmentation represents the same pattern of isolation and fragmentation, as separate domiciles no longer house extended families but separable individuals, whose time is increasingly occupied with choices between commodities rather than in interaction or relationship with real, human others. Twenty-two percent of Millenials say they have no friends.
In his work presented at a conference on “The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual” (and also published in the March 2011 issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science) Steven Winter pointed out that we all too often treat the self in the same bounded and commodified way. We treat the self, and its commitments and aims, in abstraction from its contingent, social situated nature. This includes its own higher order processes, which are not merely given, but must be nurtured to development. Winter focuses attention on the development of sexual autonomy. He reminds us that the sexual autonomy which has been the center of American constitutional law for 50 years, while couched in the language of individual rights is not, in anything but its most narcissistic forms, something that one pursues alone. Sexual autonomy is not about individual privacy. Winter finds this somewhat surreal: “after all, when one is alone, one does not need a condom” (238). It also doesn’t apply equally to all individuals. If a man’s lover is pregnant, there is no way he can legally require her to have the baby. If he does not want children, there is not only no way he can stop her from having it, and he is responsible for supporting the child. If sexual autonomy is a fundamental aspect of human flourishing, it is because, as Plato points out in the Symposium, eros is a sexual desire that attaches to a person. It is something that enables us to treat another being as the person they are, sex being an agency by which we respond to each other through our bodies, even at our most carnal, interested in a relationship between persons.
Sexuality is an important area of emotional and psychological life where I must learn how to take initiative with respect to my well-being and do so in concert with others. Under modern social conditions in the West, it is the social domain in which teenagers and very young adults get their first real taste of freedom as they explore their sexuality outside the supervision of parents and social institutions. Indeed, in early adulthood, sexuality is the domain in which we learn to be responsive and responsible to the other. The successful negotiation of sexuality and, ultimately, intimacy requires one to develop skills and values such as empathy, negotiation, compromise, cooperation, recognition of and respect for the other. These are precisely the skills too frequently underdeveloped when intimacy is stunted by contemporary practices, and at the root of the polarization and fragmentation of our national discourse.
Intimate relationships are one of the primary ways that we seek recognition and establish identity, hence the havoc wreaked upon our sense of ourselves by the pathologies of intimacy, in narcissism, manipulation, and exploitation, or why childhood sexual abuse can destroy the very capacity for agency. An important part of what we expect from intimacy is someone who “sees me as I really am,” and one of the advantages it gives us is the comfort and confidence to be just that, ourselves. Electronic communication produces greater distance between the self and the proliferation of personae which it makes possible.
We establish our autonomy, our freedom, and our identity, finally, only on the fragile and vulnerable ground of our intimate interdependencies. While there are dangers when our self-boundaries are overwhelmed, intimacy requires us not only to guard them less zealously, but to open them, both to another, and to ourselves, as the only way we can ever transcend ourselves is by going beyond them. Self-transcendence is driven by our longing for the kenosis of pouring ourselves into things greater than ourselves. Perhaps we too easily forget the ones closest to us, those who know us best, the ones from whom we always learn the most about ourselves, one of the central benefits of intimacy. Only with our closest intimates might we find the other within, the deepest well of our own self-transcendence, in all our anxiety and vulnerability, taking the risks without which we can never step outside of ourselves to genuinely love.
Philosophers like Sartre and Marcel, and even theologians like Buber and Bonhoeffer, argued several generations ago that self and other have no independent existence or intrinsic identity. Even contemporary cognitive science suggests that subjectivity is preceded by an intersubjectivity that is the product of empathies that run deeply beneath the surface of our embodied and interdependent biological lives. But it is such empathy that is abrogated by much in our contemporary culture. While our neuroplasticity makes it possible for us to be, in Andy Clark’s apt phrase natural-born cyborgs, one of the crucial lessons of our extended developmental dependency (and again I would encourage a serious look at Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood) is about how much our very subjectivity is rooted in biologically embodied relationships with other human beings, however much attenuated by a contemporary culture of electronic communication.
Our relationships are our redemption. We act on each other’s behalf, and show kindness in our bodily presence, with a touch, a kiss of peace, in holding and being held, in assurances of love, in the return of hope, in laughter and in tears: “Your tears moved me. I don’t think people really have any idea what they do for one another. I don’t know if you realize how much you’ve done for me.” We redeem each other bodily. Hoc est corpus meum. It is our sexual incompleteness and the quest for coupled and communal wholeness, which leave us open to what is outside of our control, and other than ourselves, but without which we feel incomplete.
The Disembodied Politic: Technology-Mediated Social Intercourse
In a previous blogpost on “Disembodied Communication” (3.14.2018), I asked some questions about our contemporary technological vector, particularly the cyberpsychology of electronic communication. We live in a world in which we are mimetically engulfed. From the nonverbal synchronies we share with our caregivers, through the behavioral contagion of adolescence, to the empathy of shared emotions as adults, we feel comfortable and connected. Without them we feel rejected and alien, even when the idea of connection is presumed in our symbolic communication. But even as emojis can only point to but neither produce nor sustain actual shared emotion, our sense of connection is only a pale substitute for the fullness of embodied presence in face-to-face interaction and is only developed and sustained within it. The emotional pain of social rejection depends upon the same physiology as physical pain, and our contemporary culture of indirect, distant, bodily isolating technological mediation reduces the risk of rejection only by attenuating the very mimetic, face-to-face, and embodied empathies behind not only our closest intimacies, but our very experience of ourselves as embodied agents in the world. Indeed, it may severely reduce the bodily interactions without which one’s agency and intimacy are stunted if not simply abstracted away.
Electronic communication, in hiding our vulnerability behind screens of defensiveness, distance and projection, often flies directly in the face of the development of both agency and intimacy and may undercut the very emotional and cognitive capacities necessary for social intercourse. I believe that it is the attenuation of such capacities which is behind the disordered state of our public and particularly our political discourse. By channeling our social intercourse to distance senses, away from smell, taste, and touch, physical presence, facial expression, and the coordination of bodily interaction we interact as if we were disembodied. While temporarily avoiding feelings of vulnerability and mortality, we risk the further disconnection, alienation, and isolation likely only to exacerbate them in the long run, and as terror management theory suggests, polarize our differences to the point of mutual incomprehension and, ultimately, anger and violence. While communicative technologies may also enable us to expand our interiors in more inclusive ways, they will only do so to the extent that they reduce our obsessions with unique, egocentric individuals, and our beliefs that we have autonomies independent of the social nexus within which they are developed: real bodies, in real places, with excruciatingly finite lives. Unfortunately, it has become all too clear that it is polarization and mutual incomprehension that has come to define our social and political discourse.
David Baron-Cohen warned us, in The Science of Evil it is the failure to empathize with the pain of victims that leads to genuine pathology. You want to abstract out all empathy cues? Eliminate the facial engagement of shared emotion, and communicate entirely by e-mail, text, or Twitter and then wonder why you feel lonely and alienated. I believe that failures in emotional communication are made increasingly likely by the attenuations of electronic communication. I believe that the love and support we give each other is less real or even obviated when it is not embodied, imaginary rather than real, possible but not actualized. This is the sin which Gabriel Marcel (1951) calls desincarne. What does it mean to “communicate” absent bodily presence, absent face-to-face emotion, absent coordinated movement, absent touch, absent holding and being held, absent laughter or tears?
People tethered to their mobile devices can be with you, but they are always somewhere else as well. This is the height of disembodied activity. When someone is physically present in one place, but their minds are elsewhere, they are not really “present” to us, in the sense of giving us their undivided attention. They are always waiting for something else to happen, some other contact to intrude. Even when someone is communicating with you, how is their body interacting with your body? Not by their physical presence, nor by the coordination of movement that even walking together or turn-taking in conversation requires. They are looking at a visual display screen, more often than not at text, not at actual events or interactions but descriptions of them, their fingers (or thumbs) flying over a touchpad or keyboard, heads bent over and not paying much attention to the world around them. People can be in the same room with each other, even standing next to each other and only interacting with others who are only present to them via text. Issues of embodiment include questions of place, of where you are located and what you are doing. Where are you? If you tell someone the physical location of your body, is that where your attention is directed?
In my experience, the loss is not simply connection, it is to thought. The growing literature on “embodied cognition” documents a myriad of symbioses between bodies and thinking. Students have a hard time following an argument with more than one or two steps, and one wonders about the connections between literal steps and steps of an argument. Is it harder to follow an argument if you rarely walk anywhere? Students have little or no comprehension of a wide range of nonliteral forms of discourse. One needs to mark them, as in saying, “I’m being sarcastic; I don’t think this is literally true” – which seems to undercut how sarcasm actually works. Students will take things literally unless told otherwise, and they often cannot sustain the back and forth of conversation. In an introductory class, I got in the habit of using the last 10 minutes requiring students to converse with an interlocutor that is sustained over the course of the semester. It is not a waste of time, but remediation; conversational skills need practice.
We are highly responsive to the emotions of those around us, and emotions can even be entrained subcortically, without our awareness, mediating appeasement, fear, and rage via the contagion of facial expressions and bodily expressions of emotion that are part of our social interdependence. Of course, this requires bodily presence, and face-to-face communication. This can often make us feel vulnerable, and make our mortality salient, against which we may defend ourselves with avoidance, denial, or dissociation, or shape with symbolic functions, themselves beholden to a living scaffold of bodily and social interconnection for which they are fragile prosthetics. The emotional pain of social rejection is mediated by the same physiology as physical pain, and our technologies provide us with endless ways to avoid rejection by distancing and attenuating our social intercourse. Electronic communication channels this away from immediate, physical, bodily engagement, magnifies the illusion of disembodied selves, and further fragments our experience. Our greatest human experiences and deepest intimacies, which often connect and integrate the pieces, are attenuated, and the isolated individualism that is such a hallmark of our contemporary culture becomes an even more serious, even toxic problem. The empathy of young adults has been in decline since 1980, but the last ten years have seen the steepest drop. In a cross-temporal meta-analysis, 75% of roughly 14,000 American college students rated themselves as less empathetic than those of 30 years ago.
We still need to learn and develop empathic skills, which require the face-to-face contact to read and experience the emotions of others, and to gauge their responses to our own. We need to be able to have a feeling, consider it, and decide whether to make the deliberate move toward intimacy of sharing it. Nevertheless, Turkle’s ethnography Alone Together suggests that young people often express emotions while they are being formed, where feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated, a thought formed by sending it out for responses. They often appear to be developing a “collaborative self,” uncomfortable until a response is given to a fledgling feeling or thought, needing to be connected to “feel like themselves”. We need time to think about who we are and what we value, to manage and express feelings. And we need to learn something about personal boundaries, about secrets kept, shared, and betrayed. How do we develop intimacy with no assurances of privacy, that what we send electronically isn’t made privy to others, known and unknown, trusted or not. What is a personality so fragile that it needs constant support?
Technology-mediated communication clearly allows us to reach out across greater distances, to a wider range of people, and to do more than we could have done only a decade ago. Unfortunately, many of the iGen (or Generation Z) communicate largely via texting and social media. The irony of Facebook is that while pictures and profiles can be readily available, communication is limited to writing on someone’s “wall,” or sending text-based messages which at best, can move to the level of a back and forth written chat. But as Turkle points out, text-based communication frequently uses a language of abbreviations and “emoticons.” This is not so much sharing or experiencing emotion as indicating or describing it, at best. Relationships appear to be “ramping down,” just as our connections with technology ramp up. “How are you?” is too open-ended, so we ask “where are you?” or “what’s up?” These are good questions for getting someone’s location and making a simple plan. They are not so good for opening a dialogue about complexity of feeling. We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone; in intimacy, new solitudes, as Turkle puts it.
Much of this has to do with a sense of vulnerability, and a desire for a level of control which is not possible in face-to-face conversations, or even on the telephone. Composing one’s thoughts online can indeed give the opportunity to think through, edit, and assure greater clarity. The idea, that hiding may make it possible for the shy and guarded to open up, is not new. So, texting provides protection, where even a phone call is too unbounded. Receiving one may feel like an intrusion. We prefer to keep ourselves at a distance. We don’t want people to see us upset in public. The feeling of control also makes it possible to ignore the feelings of others, avoid eye contact, avoid hearing a hurt or angry sound in someone’s voice, and miss all body language. This doesn’t encourage authenticity or spontaneity and can generate mistrust.
Even the telephone can seem to claim too much time and attention. The telephone can allow a kind of communication that texts and e-mails do not. Both parties are present at the same time, questions can be answered, turns are taken, and mixed feelings can be expressed by timing or tone of voice. E-mails can repeat without resolution, misunderstandings are commonplace, and feelings are easily hurt. Yes, with e-mails texts, and instant messaging we can “connect” when and where we want and avoid responding without much difficulty. The telegraphic nature of “chats” and “tweets” can provide succinct snapshots of emotion, insight, or even encouragement, and make us feel acknowledged, supported, and even desired. However, they are not the way to understand something very deeply, or cope with a situation of any emotional complexity, despite their ability to fill-in, and the momentum they can provide.
Even our face-to-face conversations give way to interruption by incoming electronic communication. How much of a person’s attention do you have when they have a cell phone in their hand, and they glance down, their minds suddenly no longer with you? What does it mean to spend more time with someone when they only have such interruptible attention? I know that when I am conversing with a parent in their home, that a child demanding attention can often be a legitimate interruption, and I can see them there, reaching to be held, and even respond to that child myself. But what of unknown others, who will have precedence over my physical presence, even as I, in turn, can ignore any boundaries that might once have been demarcated by my presence, and our interaction. Here the research clearly shows that even the mere presence of a mobile communications device has negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversations quality in dyadic settings, an effect most clear when people are conversing about personally meaningful topics.
Authenticity is “…the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to relate to the other because of a shared store of human experiences: we are born, have families and know loss and the reality of death… A love relationship involves coming to savor the surprises and rough patches of looking at the world from another’s point of view, shaped by history, biology, trauma, and joy” (Turkle, p 6). But we seem to want “a willful turning away from the complexities of human partnerships.” The demands of friendship can be exhausting, but so too our demands on friends when we need support, and we can alienate or fail each other. Relationships can be “complicated,” and intimacy has demands that the comforts of mere connection do not. As Turkle puts it “Teenagers are drawn to love stories in which full intimacy cannot occur—here I think of current passions for films about high school vampires who cannot sexually consummate relationships for fear of hurting those they love” (p 10). Technology changes boundaries between intimacy and solitude. If telephone conversation reveals too much, it becomes easier to text..
What are relationships really about, and what do they really provide? Interdependency. Stephen A. Mitchell asks “Can Love Last?” His conclusion is that every step that makes it less risky and more assured is a nail in its coffin. Hence trust becomes central. We need boundaries to protect our relationship, to protect oneself and a valued other from outside intrusion, control or erosion. Andy Grammar’s recent Honey, I’m good makes the point: “ I’m good. I could have another but I probably should …. not. I’ve got to bid you adieu. To another I will stay true.” Finally, what does it mean to “be there” for someone? Simple physical presence is the ideal (and sometime enough), but it cannot be without attention, and the less divided the better. What does compassion mean? And how do you “suffer with” somebody without seeing their face, sharing their emotion. There is a need for presence, physical interaction, turn-taking, face-to-face, if not a touch, a held hand, a hug, a consoling arm on the shoulder. How well can loneliness be redeemed without another’s real attention
If our world is increasingly complex, what sense does it make to have created a culture of technologically mediated communication that makes it more and more likely for our thoughts to be interrupted? We need solitary reflective time for “deep thought.” There is certainly a correlation between heavy self-reported usage of smartphones, and decreased accuracy on reasoning problems which need deliberate, effortful thought. This doesn’t show that smartphone use causes the decrease, but the decrease doesn’t correlate with social media or entertainment use. It could be that it does make us lazier thinkers, for which the information access does not compensate. It could be that inclinations to less effortful thinking causes the use rather than vice-versa. It also could mean that it makes us less attuned to the value of what we think we know. Nevertheless, when it comes to reflection about one’s own thoughts and feelings, having moments with oneself to shore up resources and regain control, and the necessary relationship of disconnection and separation to the development and maintenance of autonomy, it is clear that reductions in attention and solitary thinking are going to result from technological dependence. But how do we block out time to be ourselves, time to think, how do we find “down-time,” when our phones are becoming integral parts of our self-image?
Teenagers especially want to have time when they are not “on call” for their parents or friends. Developing autonomy means needing to separate as well as to connect. Friendships can be sustaining, but they can also be constraining. Being “on your own,” learning about your own capacities and resources, and even learning to recognize that “I don’t have the emotional resources for this,” require disconnected time. How do we learn to self-soothe, to calm down, when connections are ubiquitous? There are clearly relational as well as developmental issues here. What happens to our ability to function independently if we are always in contact? There is also a blurry line between what we hide from others and from ourselves, and how ready sources of distraction and obsession produce some of the very symptoms we long to reduce.
Alone in a room by yourself? In a recent study in Science a University of Virginia experiment found that most people did not enjoy spending time in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder, or daydream. Despite being given time to prepare what they might want to think about, they preferred listening to music, using their smartphones, or even giving themselves small electric shocks. One quarter of the women and two thirds of the men chose electric shocks over their own company.
Iggy Azalea, a rap artist, upon disconnecting from social media, said “The Internet is the ugliest reflection of mankind there is.” While one’s profile on Facebook is arguably a form of self-expression, the literature in social psychology mainly suggests that, since we bias our presentations to make certain impressions, and then bias our evaluation of other’s responses to them, the presentations are mainly for ourselves. I used to ask my students how often they looked at the profiles of their friends and loved ones, and they responded “rarely.” I asked them whose profiles did they look at, and the sheepish response was “those we are cyber-stalking.” So, I asked them who they thought was looking at theirs. But even these profiles are often not even ones’ “best self,” as much as fantasies of who we want to be. “Virtual places offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment. We don’t count on cyberfriends to come by if we are ill, to celebrate our children’s successes, or help us morn the deaths of our parents” (Turkle, 153).
The problem is that technologically mediated communication allows, and in giving us such free rein, may encourage the lack of patience, the indulgence of our worst impulses, and even the expression of our darkest capacities for cruelty or indifference. What happens to politeness, etiquette, turn-taking, consideration, or even taste? What happens to care for the feelings of others you cannot see? Cyberbullying becomes easier, as does exclusion. Where ae the encouragements for responsibility for one’s actions, for the effects they have on others? What happens to the longer-term commitments, like being there for a friend when she has nothing to offer in return, or taking care of a helpless spouse in disease or death? These are the “commitment scripts” that are what give human beings emotional and moral advantages over other animals. Longer-term connections, real relationships, real friendships with human beings we have befriended rather than just “friended,” are our only real defense against interruption, exclusion, betrayal, or abandonment. Even being treated as an instrument can be dehumanizing. Imagine being treated as inanimate, or even as disembodied. Sharing laughter and tears is a lot different from sharing descriptions of laughter and tears, and dancing, touching, holding hands, kissing, tasting, smelling another person are hard to simulate. Finally, while the attachment literature does show that just thinking about an intimate other can help, it works far better if what you invoke is their actual presence, their caring, and their attention. One of the best alternatives to being in a room alone, is to be there with someone who is a real friend, someone who you love, and who loves you back.
From I to We
In this series of blogposts on Sex and the Commons, I have argued that the difficulties of our social discourse are in the erosion of attention to a common good. Common goods are produced by individual motivations to contribute to resources whose value is largely by virtue of their being shared, their being of value to all of us, of being part of an ocean in which we all float. I think that this erosion has both contributed to and magnified the polarization and even fragmentation of our political discourse, often competing with and too often replaced by the politics of separate group identifications. I think that the existence of a documented sexual recession, and the concomitant difficulties in embodied intimacies, sexual and otherwise, have also made a huge contribution. This has produced a stunting in the development of the skills once learned in the earliest stages of adulthood, in the domain of our sexuality, the domain in which we learn to be responsive and responsible to the other. The successful negotiation of sexuality and, ultimately, intimacy requires the development of skills and values such as empathy, negotiation, compromise, cooperation, recognition of and respect for the other. These are precisely the skills too frequently underdeveloped when intimacy is stunted by contemporary practices, in particular the ubiquitous turn to electronic communication. This disembodied form of communication, too often for the sake of the anxious self-protection and avoidance vulnerability, abstracts out much in the way of the emotional sharing necessary for any kind of intimacy, particularly the sexual. This is at the root of our loss of a Commons, and the polarization and fragmentation of our national discourse.
The fragmentation of our social and political discourse has been accelerated precipitously within a generation whose social, emotional, and cognitive skills have been deeply conditioned by their immersion, from young and developmentally inappropriate ages, in networks of electronic discourse, often to the exclusion or at least abstraction from embodied personal interaction. It is my view that we can only recover a relational and meaningful life in one-on-one, close, intimate, and loving relationships, even and perhaps inevitably, as mortal, embodied beings, unto suffering and death. We save ourselves by saving each other, by attending to the common good against which our individual resources inevitably pale, and without which the human condition on this planet can only deteriorate.
I want to take the idea of being wedded to the world, literally of one flesh with it, ever more seriously. We are not only cyborg selves, incorporating our technologies, particularly extensive informational technologies, into our empirical self-experience, but, in the extensive exteriorization of higher cognitive abilities, and even memory, we are truly symbionts with a symbolic material culture. Moreover, in the ways in which our memories, and the externalizations of them, can be involved in the highest levels, not only of cognition but of empathy, inclusive of our histories and our stories, our marriage with the world is also a marriage to time, it is diachronic. Preeminent amongst that from which we are constituted are our relationships with other human beings, particularly those with whom we have deep and lengthy, even life-long, intimacies. There is a kind of knowledge which includes identifying the “knower and the object known,” in the same way that one person comes “know” another, no longer strangers, though there is always more to learn. As with Gabriel Marcel, what is more important is not “I think,” but “we are,” and we know ourselves by knowing each other.
Plato wrote that in the face of the beloved we can see the reflection of the god to whose choir we once belonged, a humble and honest love connecting us with our own souls, and a feeling of permanence, meaning, and the goodness of life. Not every relationship achieves this promise, and none do it all the time, but, in hope and faith, we keep trying. As Rollo May wrote in his sadly out of print The Cry for Myth: “There are assets to being mortal – that we experience our own loneliness, and as Zeus said, “the poignancy of the transient, the sweet sadness of grasping for something we know we cannot hold” (1991, p 294). This is what the gods envy of mortality, and why, so often in Greek myth, persons offered immortality choose mortality instead, as Ulysses gives up immortality with Calypso for more years on the wine-dark sea, in the uncertain hope of returning to Ithaca, and his beloved, the aging Penelope. Could we learn to love each other, to love passionately, if we knew we’d never die? Might this not be the greater good, when eternity breaks into time, incarnate in our mundane existence, and reaching beyond it.
Our quest for loving relationality in our communal life is at historical tension, in our contemporary world, with the postmodern isolation of the individual, the fragmentation of self and meaning. We live as embodied, sexual persons, bonded together in loving relationships, and our communal life. Our meaning, how we matter, is not in the ends we attain, or even whether we attain them, but in reaching for them, and hoping we can.
Hope is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace.
You have to love a man who, in one of his first acts as president of the newly democratic Czech Republic, has The Rolling Stones as state guests.
It is in a moral imagination that we can project new futures for ourselves, of what it might mean to think about ourselves, our relationships, and our communities differently, and why it might matter deeply to do so. We can a powerful religious imagination in what Marshall Frady’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., calls America’s “highest moral adventure in recent history.” In King’s “I have a dream” speech, his dream was about “sitting down at the table of brotherhood,” that if we “let freedom ring…we speed up that day when all God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last, free at last, thank god Almighty, we are free at last!” Projecting such dreams for the future, and doing so in embodied, enactive, relational, and communal ways will certainly mean that we make ourselves as vulnerable as lovers do, and in ways that, in living more fully (and what is our fear of death but our fear of not living fully?), we risk pain and suffering, and may sometimes hasten our mortality, and even do so knowingly, as most of us would readily do for a beloved partner, or child. King knew this too and said, the night before he was murdered:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long time. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will—And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy tonight! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
We still face injustice, racial and otherwise, we still feel the alienation of one tribe from another, of hatred and warfare, of the isolation and separation of our loneliness, and of the ecological degradation of our planet. What we need to see, is how we are parts of each other, members of a communal body, and coupled with, wed to the world, of one flesh with it, and it deserves no less care. What it may take a religious imagination to see is how, in redeeming each other, and our broken world, we redeem ourselves.