I went to a lecture last night by Corey Beals, a Quaker professor (and friend) who just wrote a new book called Levinas & the Wisdom of Love: the Question of Invisibility. Levinas is a postmodern philosopher (postmodern in the philosophical sense, meaning early- to mid-twentieth century, rather than postmodern in the American cultural sense, which is, apparently, now), a Jew who endured a work camp in France in WWII, and an amazingly powerful, profound and deep thinker. I may have written posts about him before, in my very early blog posts. I read some of his work for a class my first semester of seminary and really liked it, although I have questions about his view of women as "other" although he's trying to do something helpful. But that's for another post, and I really am not enough of a Levinas expert (or a Levinas expert at all...) to criticize.
Anyway, Corey did his dissertation on Levinas, so he had some great things to say and takes Levinas' thought in a helpful direction that I think Quakers can grasp onto. Corey talked about Levinas' theory that when we attend to the other above ourselves, that is when we are most human. Most of us don't do this so well, however, and end up attempting to either make ourselves "invisible," or make the other "invisible." We do this in many ways, which Corey went through quite thoroughly.
As I listened to the lecture I wondered, Why is it that we want to make ourselves invisible, or want to make others invisible? Of course it comes down to our fear of the tremendous responsibility we have for the other when we allow ourselves to truly see them. And yet, at the same time, we have this insatiable desire to be seen, to be known truly for who we are, to not be categorized or dismissed, but to be truly seen.
At the same time we have a huge problem with being seen in this way. For some reason it's incredibly scary to be so transparent, to take off our masks and let others see in to who we are. It's easier to block ourselves off, to make ourselves "invisible" to others so they can't see our real selves, than to experience the pain of showing our real selves and being dismissed and made invisible by others.
It is also easier to put up walls so we can't see others--these can be physical or intangible walls--so we don't see their pain, which we would be required to ease, so we don't see the fact that we're causing them pain, which we would definitely be required to right. We put up walls by making enough middle-men (or middle-women) so that we don't really know what we're doing is hurting others, so the responsibility is not ours. The classic example of this, of course, is the military--no one is ultimately responsible for others' deaths, because those who order it don't carry it out, and those who carry it out are just following orders. But we do this in so many other ways, too: I don't know where my shoes come from! How could I know if they were made in a sweat shop? Or just living as we "must" in America because there's no other way to live (so we justify to ourselves), even though the way we live costs the lives of others the world over each day just so we can have the luxuries we've come to need.
So it comes down to the problems of intimacy and responsibility. We all want intimacy, but we don't really want responsibility. And yet, with intimacy comes responsibility to be a safe place for that intimacy to grow and blossom. Why is that so hard? Especially in our meetings, I see this as a huge problem. We say we want to be close to each other, but we do not create the time to get to know anyone on a deep level. We don't take the time to listen to the Spirit together in an intimate way. We listen to the Spirit together in safe ways, where we all follow the rules of the gathered meeting, and where people are eldered if they break those rules.
I would suggest that because we've lost almost all levels of intimacy with one another, we have lost intimacy with God. Levinas says it is in the face to face encounter with the other, the true seeing of the other, that we encounter God. I suggest that if we do not allow ourselves true encounters with the other, we cannot see God and we cannot live out the responsibility we have to follow God in ways that are meaningful. We put up walls so we don't have to truly see each other because we fear the responsibility we would have to face into. These walls keep us from a true and intimate relationship with God.
It reminds me of a Dar Williams song called "What Do You Hear in These Sounds" about how she likes going to her therapist. She says:
And I wake up and I ask myself what state I'm in
And I say well I'm lucky 'cause I am like East Berlin
I had these walls and what I knew of the free world was
That I could see their fireworks and I could hear their radios
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
And they'd know that I was scared, they would know that I was guessing
But the wall came down, and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling and their calling out
Just like me
So why is it so scary to be ourselves? And why is it so hard to be responsible?