Lenten Journal: Our Multi-Dimensional Companions

In experience, the journey from ego-based dissociation towards God (or from fear towards love), specifically invokes the other as a multi-dimensional companion: comforter, scherpa, reflecting pool, dialogue partner, psalmist, lover . . .

To be praxical is to be in love with the other (who could be our own self) in the fullness of their multi-dimensionality and, paradoxically, to be out of love, as a precondition for moving towards love.

The other is always my projection, or construction, and could always be my own self. Hence, the best rule for behavior, and generally for getting along in the world, is the Golden Rule, which Heinz von Foerster articulated as “A is better off when B is better off.”

Thus, to be in love with you, is to want what is best for you, trusting that what is best for you will, in turn, be best for me. In looking out for you, in making your happiness and wellness my priority, and the focus of my acting, I am also, simultaneously, tending my own self and its happiness and wellness.

This is a way of recognizing that there is one love, not many loves. Or, perhaps, that love is public – like the sky, say – and not private (like my feelings about the sky).

Yet, critically, I do not necessarily or always know what is best for you. I cannot see the whole, but only a fragment of it. My existence – my structure as homo sapiens – is perspectival, and so my assertions of knowledge with respect to what is helpful, requisite, loving, salvational et cetera is by necessity only partial. It is always conditional on what is available to me given my perspective.

Thus, if I am honest and humble, then I must admit that when it comes to determining what is better or best for you, I am neither an unbiased nor even an especially effective arbiter. How could it be otherwise, given my natural limitations?

Thus, I am in this sense – owing to my inevitable partiality, or partialness – out of love. I need help helping you.

I don’t think this is a problem, so long as I am clear about it, and in no rush to “fix” things. To be “out” of love is okay in the sense that it naturally points towards “in” love; it is quickly and automatically self-correcting. But we have to see it, and seeing it means letting it be.

It’s when I decide not to let “out-of-love” be and hurriedly assert half and quarter-measures based on purported good intentions that things go awry, which is to say, extend confusion by postponing clarity. It’s not a crime against God or Nature but why put off healing?

Is there a way to know what is good for you?

Sometimes it is sufficient to ask what is good for me, and then allow the answer to function for both of us. For example, neither of us want to go hungry or live in a war zone or be beaten.

So food security, peace-building, safe houses, anger management programs, sound conflict resolution opportunities, meaningful work and so forth are all fine. I try to help bring them forth by sharing with others, donating time and energy (and money, when I have it), voting for wise women and men and so forth. It helps the all-of-us, which of course includes me.

But mostly I think that figuring out what is good for the other is to actually ask them and then listen to the answer without deciding in advance what the answer ought to be.

In this context, “asking” sometimes means reading and thinking about what I’ve read. For example, I have learned a lot in the past six months or so reading Rebecca Traister and Susanna Danuta Walters.

But also, sometimes, maybe even more of the time, it means actually asking people what they want or need, being sure I understand it, and then trying to figure out how to bring it forth in a way that is mutual, sustainable, responsive, et cetera.

This happens in my marriage, with my children, my mother and siblings, the classrooms where I teach, my neighbors . . .

And it is not easy. Apparent failures abound. Coming up short abounds. Prioritizing peace and nonviolence and consensus models of conflict resolution is challenging, especially in settings where power imbalances feel so unmovable and intimate.

That brings up what I experience as the hardest aspect of attending the other in a radically loving and helpful way: I secretly don’t believe or accept that they are also me. I like saying the Golden Rule aloud – I like the image of me living it – but the truth is I feel deprived when I prioritize you, and I don’t trust you to prioritize me.

Nobody wants to see this in their own self. A lot of what passes for spirituality is an eloquent and fanciful denial of these qualities.

But to clearly see these “out of love” qualities is very helpful. Pride, self-centeredness, stubbornness, willfull ignorance, pettiness, greed, lust . . .

When we see them, they are already being undone, and so another way the other is valuable to us is that when we try to serve them, we discover our unwillingness. We discover our selfishness.

We discover our fear.

Which, again, feels terrible but “terrible” in the way getting a shot feels terrible. It stings but the long-term effects are worth it. Indeed, getting the shot means healing is underway.

When I am no longer deluding myself about psychological growth and spiritual heroism I can get on my the praxis of love and do things like wave to the neighbors, ask the kids if they want to talk or play or do they need a ride somewhere, bake muffins for Chrisoula so she’ll wake to a warm and fresh-smelling kitchen . . .

And that turns out to be okay! It turns out to be more than okay. It is a mode of service premised on what is ordinary and natural and given – what is here to be done, no bells and no whistles.

So the other shows us the way to go, goes with us as we go and – critically – is where we are going. We could say it this way, too: Love shows us the way to go, goes with us as we go and – critically – is where we are going.

The other is love.

Of course, we are “other” too, and in that capacity are sometimes reminded of how lovely and helpful and kind our brothers and sisters can be, including our own self, all of us stumbling up the trail together, summit bound on feet of clay, as I am reminded – wordily, wordily – on this, the 24th day of Lent.

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