Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Responding to Alterity

Recently my blog-friend Kyle posted a fragment on alterity and my thoughts in response to his post ended up being too long for a combox. So, I post them here.

Kyle speaks of looking into a familiar face and suddenly realizing that he could never exhaust the full meaning of that person. Our ideas about a person can be basically true, but not exhaustive, not the final word on who that person is.

I've had a somewhat similar experience on a number of occasions; mostly when talking to or about people much older than myself. If you ever want to experience alterity, go up to one of your parents or a beloved teacher or some other person of that sort and ask them to tell you about their childhood. Better yet, ask them what they wanted to do with their lives when they were your age. (This works best if you are about 17 or 18 years old.) To cite an example: I've known my mother now for 19 1/2 years. (20 1/4, if you count the time I spent inside her). I'd say I know her pretty well after all that. Yet...she is not just my mom. And I will probably never comprehend fully how she became who she is today, even though I've been around for almost half her life.

I wonder if my children will ever have that same experience with me. They could ask a question as innocent as "What was it like when you were dating Daddy?" and I'd have to tell them a story that I can't possibly express for you, dear readers, right now as I type this. Perhaps I will never be able to express it. These past few years have been a journey in alterity if there ever was one.

Which brings me to another thought that came to me as I was reading Kyle's post: The Cobbler is an Other. You'd think I'd have known that already. I've known him for only 2 1/2 of his almost 20 years, and called him my friend for only about 18 months. (And my boyfriend for 14--we progressed beyond friendship pretty quickly.) Yet for all that I think I could say (and he might even agree with me) that I probably know him better than anybody else, even better than his parents or older brothers who have known him for the entire time he's existed on this earth.

Still, he remains Other. I remember on one occasion, within a month of when we started dating, the two of us were making a holy hour together and as we sat and prayed I was suddenly struck with the realization that in that moment he was alone with God, even though I was no more than a foot to his right.

It's something I need to be reminded of sometimes, that the Cobbler is not merely an accesory to God's plan for me, nor am I an accessory to God's plan for him. God has an individual plan for each of us; we lived those plans separately for about 18 years and will live them together for as long as God grants us to do so, but ultimately there will be no chance to do what Adam and Eve did; stand pointing fingers under the force of God's judgement. In the end, he is going to be even more alone with God than he is in Adoration, and he will be saved or damned based on who he is within himself (though certainly I could bear responsibility for either helping or hindering his growth in virtue).

And ultimately I will be alone too, with the one who is altogether Other.


Shakespeare's Cobbler said...

A peculiar thing about alterity is that one is more aware of the Other-ness of the Other the more one knows the Other. I don't talk much about you to aquaintances. There's a simple reason for that, which can also be used to demonstrate the idea of alterity in a simple exercise.

Try to describe entirely the person you find most dear to you, who you know best and -- well, you get the idea. If you feel you've succeeded, you're either fooling yourself or are shallow, and you know it 'cause your first thought was probably "How do I even begin to describe him/her?" If it's your boyfriend/girlfriend, it's a good test of whether you're actually in love with him/her. If on the other hand you realize you can never really sum up this person with anything resembling full accuracy, well, congratulations, you've just discovered alterity and that Deconstruction thing about the limits of language.

It's interesting how that field plays into love and personhood.

The Sojourner said...

Hmm. Interesting point. I might invert your first sentence, though, "the more one knows the Other the more one is aware of the Other-ness of the Other."

Also, I always fail miserably at describing you to other people. I usually end up oversimplifying to the point of ridiculousness. Now I have cool philosophical names for Indescribably Wonderful and English Fail.

Theocentrica said...

This is why I stick with caricatures. *g*

It occurred to me that when you're describing another, you come down to the bare threads of describing them. And then, it's never knowing exactly how those threads are woven into a soul, or how many of them, and it's even harder than describing someone's DNA.

I just lost my train of thought. Oh well.

I can never describe people, especially those I love. I can just sort of peer into God's eyes and try to see their reflections, or describe them from what I know of myself which can be recognized as shared within them. And even that's extrapolating my data.

I'm thinking too hard for this time of night.