By Corbin Croy
We divide. We separate. We distinguish. We organize and consolidate. We utilize. We develop, grow and prosper. We progress. We categorize and label and name. We construct and project. We evolve. All this is made possible through our self-referential mode of thinking. We are rational beings, and our minds are powerful tools. But in this system of self-reference modern thought has led to this idea of “otherness.” It means just like it sounds, to be a person as a person there must be others. We need things like nurses, teachers, janitors, presidents and so on. These labels and characterizations make living possible.
But this idea of a person as a person creates some dynamics in otherness that can be problematic. First, while there seems to exist an implicit contract to be objectified for mutually beneficial reasons, no one wants to be an “other” in our relations with people as people. We have terms, like “soulmate”, or “a friend is a second self” to convey the idea that a person is something different (other) than all the other things we relate to. Currently, there is a philosophy which engages this problem and has provided a solution of sorts. It is called the “narrative of otherness.” It is believed that to overcome the objectification of person our goal must be to involve ourselves in the story of others. This is not a problem that can be resolved propositionally, or didactically. We must be dialectic and relational in our connections with others.
Martin Buber best illustrated this point when he described the I-It and I-Thou distinctions. Every event is either an I-It event or an I-Thou event. Now a single event can be both, but they remain distinct. Thus, there is a real distinction between I-It events and I-Thou events. I-It events are characterized by order and balance. They describe the rational world with causes and effects and hierarchy and categorization. The “I” stands in relation to the “It.” Already they are distinct and drawn out from one another. All I-It events are division, objectification and generalization. It is the quantifiable world. An I-Thou event seeks unity of self with everything. The “Thou” is not automatically a person, qua person. But it characterizes our personal relationship to everything around us. A person can stand in the middle of a forest and feel a connection to everything around him. This connection transcends I-It distinctions and qualifies itself as something unique. But it is personhood which is the ultimate bond we have with our self and so it is what we ultimately seek in our I-Thou events. To stand in a forest or to make love to our soulmate stands light years apart on the same continuum. Our desire to relate is best served in actual relationship.
In I-Thou events Otherness is not something that alienates us, but draws us together. We seek our self in others. A narrative is a combination of I-Thou events and organized into an I-It structure, like a story. A narrative is more than just information about a person and their past. The information itself and the organizing principle involved in the construction of the story is all emblematic of an I-It event, but a narrative is exclusively an I-Thou event. The story may be for you to read and study, but a narrative can only be engaged on a personal level. When we invite other into our narrative, or when we join in someone else’s narrative we are not “developing” their story for them, or becoming characters to move the plot. To join in narrative is to let the core of who you are become involved in the core of who another is as much as is permitting and to trust that this dynamic will provide the resolution for all conflicts that can arise. The Narrative of Otherness is a dialectic which is best used for the subject to be in relation to a subject, qua subject.
Methods of Grace
Every person wants to be accepted for who they are. The Narrative of Otherness provides the template for how we as unique individuals accept others for their own unique individuality without risking either’s uniqueness. So there are two things which the Narrative of Otherness requires in order to function. The first is that there is nothing which can add to or take away from the quality of one’s own personhood. A person who is robbed, misunderstood, or objectified will still be a person nonetheless, and will not be any less of a person unless he consent to the diminishment. Which leads to the second, and that is that all personal involvements are always made under the belief that it will contribute to or mutually benefit one’s personal development. So when we fail, at the end of the day, the only person we must hold accountable is not some one else. It is only our self who is to blame.
Thus, our becoming in our own narrative relies on one very important attribute. Our ability to forgive, and to be forgiven becomes the primary qualities we require for a proper narrative to develop toward maximal potential. And what is most significant about this quality is that it’s most effective use will always be reflective. So in the Narrative of Otherness the story being written is always the story of our self learning to forgive our self in new ways. Of course, all this may seem narcissistic in some ways. And I agree that it is rather an individualistic way to think of mutual cooperation and communal bonds of brotherhood. But all complex systems ultimately get reduced down to one.
It is this theme of grace which must weave itself into our narrative that truly intrigues me and inspires me to consider something even more profound than the sustaining power of the Narrative of Otherness. If the “success” of my narrative, or if the maximum potential of my narrative is only actualized through my ability to forgive myself, or through the event of self-forgiveness then it seems that I am introduced to something else entirely different. I can forgive myself as a rather casual matter of fact, in the sense of simply letting myself get away with it, but it seems that to truly *be forgiven* then I must stand upon something greater than myself. I must connect to something that is deeper and firmer then what I am in myself. I must be grounded. Self-forgiveness in this sense requires a ground of being. My Ground of Being is relation to self-forgiveness must be something that resolves my conflict with Otherness, but at the same time must be Wholly Other.
The Narrative of Otherness brings me into conflict, but also provides the resolution for achievement. This basic conflict comes in accepting others as a person, qua person, and receiving acceptance for yourself as a person, qua person. To truly accept an-other is a difficult task, which cannot be done without some adjusting of our own relation to that person. This is why we call them an-other. Since all people are different from one another, we must be in this process of adjustment to each other which is a process of conflict and resolution. But the threat to this system is at what point are we adjusting ourselves because it is the right thing to do, or because we simply want to fit in? At what point am I truly “forgiving myself” so that I can be accepted as my self, or am I just giving myself a bunch of excuses so that in the end I can do what I want to do? It is here that the Ground of Being comes into play.
Check back for part two.
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