Monday 7 September 2015

The Reality of Other People

Benedict Ambrose is a big fan of the novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch, and Murdoch had this to say about love and reality: "Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. the discovery of reality."  

B.A. quoted this at a dinner party, and both ladies present looked highly skeptical that the realization that something other than oneself is real is extremely difficult. Was Murdoch some kind of monster, or were we just not getting it?    

Then I remembered something Father Bernard Lonergan wrote about Eddington's two tables. Eddington observed that every table is the table is the table as it appears to us AND the table as it is to itself, i.e. atoms surrounded by emptiness. Lonergan described the difference between things as they are in relation to us, and things as they are in themselves

We can even see God in this way: when we consider the Incarnation and salvific history, we are most definitely seeing God as He is in relation to us. But when we contemplate God in His Triune majesty, we worship Him for who He is. At a certain point in prayer we have to leave off asking for gifts and saying sorry for sins and just contemplate He Who Is in Himself. Simultaneously God is for us and also wrapped up in an eternal dance between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Yes, it's a mystery.

People are also a mystery, to a certain extent, and the one way I know you can come close to seeing a person as God sees them is to fall in love with him/her. And I mean really him/her, virtues, warts and all. You see that he is an alcoholic or a fibber or lazy or chews his toenails or whatever, but you know--truthfully--"I can accept that." This is not a "should" by the way, and most definitely not something to talk yourself into. It is just a phenomenon that happens or doesn't. And what a phenomenon! Hopefully you also see him for who he IS in himself, and not just who he is in relation to you, e.g. "My idol."

So I think what Murdoch was getting at is that everybody and everything is something outside of ourselves and not contingent on us. If we shut our eyes, the people around are still there. If we were to wink out of existence, reality would go on without us. If I should keel over dead, my mother would be very sad, but she would probably still go on her next river cruise. I certainly hope so. 

Children have a hard time seeing their mothers as anyone other than their mother. This drives some mothers crazy, and they try to impress upon their children that they are something other than "Mother" to themselves. I am not sure if this is a good idea or not, but possibly it is necessary so that the mothers don't go crazy and burn their homes down. Children have no power, no money, few rights, and little understanding; possibly believing that their mothers' lives revolve completely around them is necessary for their sanity. 

But eventually the child "gets it" and sees that his mother is neither goddess nor slave but a woman at least 14 years older than himself, with her own interests, own friends (hopefully), own opinions (which are sometimes wrongheaded, but not the war crimes they seemed when he was 14), and own experience of herself. I'm sorry to say the first literary example that comes into my head is from The Vampire Lestat, when Lestat turns his mother into a vampire, and she stops being his mother to assert herself as Gabrielle. 

Only a very childish person sees everyone around himself solely in relation to himself, and what he can get out of them, or what he wants them to be. In the brutal words of one young man I know, re: the girls who chase him all over the shop, "I can see why they are interested in me, but I don't see why they think I should be interested in them."  As staggering as this statement may sound, it implies "They aren't considering who I may be or what my interests are, are they?" 

Imagine Prince William at the University of Saint Andrews, and how difficult it must have been to make friends who actually liked him for himself and not because he was, you know, the second in line to the throne. The question "What could Prince William do for me?" must have jumped to hundreds of adolescent minds, however subconsciously. This sort of selfishness is easily noted by the thinker and regretted as base, but I pity whichever young things on campus got a random smile from Prince William and allowed themselves to spin this everyday pleasant social convention into "OMG! He likes me! Maybe we'll get married! I'll be the QUEEN!" 

Well, I would say more, but I must away to a funeral. I am thinking of the reality of my husband and how he will feel if I don't meet him at Paolozzi's giant foot sculpture outside the Cathedral when I said I would. 

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