V&A Rotunda Chandelier-Dale Chihuly-Missouri Botanical Garden
One of my favorite poets, Joni Mitchell said, “We all come and go unknown / each so deep and superficial / between the forceps and the stone.”
Can I know another, or am I caught in a loop, seeing only my projections of myself, working out my karma as a shadow puppeteer, missing who the other is entirely?
How often have I made a definitive judgment about some person in public life that I’ve never met? I won’t tell you. It’s embarrassing. And my summary conclusion was all too often not just limited to their vote on legislation, or a speech they gave, or a missed play, or the cut of their tux. I would wrap their whole character into that missed free throw or their poorly bowed tie.
How could I think my opinion was true?
My Dad took his stuff and his car and left me and my Mom and brother when I was sixteen. I thought that was terrible, but we got through it. “I’d never do that.”, I thought.
I took my stuff and my car and left my wife and three kids when my oldest was sixteen.
These things don’t need to be all that poetic to be teaching moments, but it helps get my attention.
Forty years ago, my partner was seeing a shrink and reported to me that the shrink, who had never met me, concluded I was a sociopath. Though less poetic, it too was a learning moment. “So how does this feel?”
Bernie Glassman urged us to see ourselves as others and see others as ourselves. I have work to do. There are many I admire and others I hope I do not emulate. But Bernie’s encouragement runs much deeper. He did not insist we approve of or sanction behaviors, but rather that we include everyone and accept our limitless capabilities to create miracles and horror. I can do and have done both.
You and I are 60% water and almost 100% empty space. What is there of “you” for me to know?
Am I the same person I was twenty years ago? Most of my cells have regenerated. Who’s who here?
What is it in her or him that I think I know? Their past actions? Where have those gone? Or is it what I expect them to do next or in the future? Is it “personality” we think we know? I was a psych major years ago, and we took personality to be a real thing. But I’ve never seen one.
Perhaps you and I are only movement and activity rather than any fixed thing? At least as long as that activity continues. What happens when the shark stops swimming? Long ago a teacher warned not to be too still for too long or risk seeing things as they really are.
Of the decades of another’s life, how much of it did I witness or experience? And even if I was right there, do I know how they felt, or what motivated them? How did I divine that?
William Faulkner’s seminal 1930 novel As I Lay Dying employs fifteen different points of view of the same event. Taken as a whole, we come away either with a richly variegated view of what occurred, or complete doubt and confusion about what was true.
In 1950, Akira Kurosawa presented his film Rashomon, which used the device of four contradictory accounts of the same event by observers, earning the label the “Rashomon Effect”, suggesting eyewitnesses are unreliable.
I doubt myself as an eyewitness.
Truly appreciating the rich and endless complexity of another’s life is like a blindfolded person reaching out to touch a Chihuly sculpture, trying to decide what it is. Even when the eyes are uncovered it’s unknowable, other than the beauty of blown glass or the wonder of another human being.
I’ve known my brother longer than anyone alive. When I was three my grandfather lifted me up so I could see my new brother through the window of the Army barracks style hospital the day he was born. We are very close today but the tapestry of each of our lives is surely a mystery to the other.
If this all seems rather stark and lonely, with each of us wandering the planet for eighty years, coming and going, unknown to others and unable to know others, until we exit the stage, perhaps there’s hope.
What if knowing another is not static, like knowing algebra or how to conjugate a verb? What if it flows, or is always changing? A list of height, weight, jobs held, rap sheet, failed marriages, good and bad habits, favorite Beatles album or food preferences are like saying Dostoevsky weighs fourteen ounces, has a stiff cover, many pages, and smells rather musty.
I prefer to think of relationship as relating, something we do, an engaged activity where we experience the other in present time, without past baggage and biases, without a belief in what comes next, a dynamic, living, unknowable meeting.
I prefer that, but all too often I revert to my heroes and villains routine. But in the rare times I set that aside, I see you, and we’re just here, and it’s still, and nothing is happening, and of course the Chihuly piece is an exotic sea creature.