Thursday, April 22, 2010

narratives and the practice of encountering others

Taylor (in An Altar in the World) titles her chapter on community "The Practice of Encountering Others." I found the chapter particularly insightful. She writes:

What we have most in common is not religion but humanity. I learned this from my religion, which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get -- in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing--which is where God's Beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead (p. 102)

How often do I turn other people, from my family and friends to those I may encounter in my daily life, into foils in my story? Every time I get mad because the person in front of me is driving too slow or I get frustrated because a family member doesn't see the dishes that need to be washed or the floor that needs to be vacuumed (as opposed to my asking for help) or every time I try to convince someone else that my thought on an issue is the only thought or the "right" thought, I become that fiction writer.

Taylor is not saying (and neither am I) that we should allow another person to turn us into a supporting character or a foil, to become a nominal character in someone else's made up story. We tend to call such behavior co-dependent or passive aggressive and actually de-values the humanity of both of you.

Rather, Taylor connects the ancient commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself to this practice of encountering others. If we value others as protagonists in their own narratives, we are loving them as we love ourselves. The goal, Taylor says, is to "love the God you did not make up with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and the second is like unto it: to love the neighbor you also did not make up as if that person were your own strange and particular self."  In other words, a valuable and unique main character, just as you are, just as I am, just as we all are.

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