If I am because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.
(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, (NY) Schocken Books, 1948, p. 283 quoted by Steven Kushner, in Spiritual Authenticity, on reformjudaism.org.)
This insight from Buber through Kushner, comes from an explication/interpretation/exegesis of why the Jewish people wandered so long in the wilderness, after leaving Egypt, in part explained by the perception reported by their scouts, that they appeared as ‘grasshoppers’ to themselves and must also have appeared so the people currently living in the new land. Kushner writes: “Their failure wasn’t even that they had low self-esteem, that they saw themselves as grasshoppers. For this they could be forgiven. Rather It was their preoccupation with how others saw them that was their sin….The failure of that generation escaping Egypt was that they were incapable of self-reflection.” (op. cit.)
Personal anecdote: A middle-aged woman’s response to the question, “What would you do if you were attending a party and happened to hear a racist joke being told among a group of people?” goes like this:
“Well, I would withdraw from the group without making any comment, because I would not want that group to think that I thought I was ‘better’ than them in any way.”
That woman’s self was more determined by how she wanted the ‘group’ to perceive her than facing the challenge of confronting the racism (and the story-teller) to which she objected by withdrawing.
How many people do we know whose “self” is contaminated by (or even perhaps originates in) a deep consideration of how s/he is perceived by another, rather than whose identity is authentically resulting from a self-possession determined through deep and continuous self-reflection.
There is a strong social/political/cultural/ethical and even spiritual current flooding the streets of many towns and cities on many continents fueled by rage, betrayal anger and the evidence of profound, deeply-ingrained and seemingly ineradicable racism (as well as sexism, now being grafted onto the protest). And each of us witnesses the events, shares the headlines, and somewhat empathizes with the centuries of victims whose life stories fill archives of court documents, history books and novels, poems and films, without apparently succeeding in eliminating the stain on the heart and soul of many nations, especially those in North America. Both men and women, unfortunately, are influenced by the insight from Buber’s pen, and one of the possible reasons for such a lack of identity is the motive to avoid conflict, to make peace, to appease, to ‘fit in’ and to ‘succeed’ in whatever situation we find ourselves. On the one hand, we too often ‘fear’ what the other might think of us, especially in and when we are faced with a new situation. Leaving home to attend school on the first day, each child is apprehensive about how other children and especially the new teacher will regard him/her. And this sensation continues each September when school terms begin, long after first grade, in part depending on those early ‘first-day’ memories. Similarly, first dates are shadowed by the angst and anticipation of the potential of rejection.
In a Christian culture, too, the notion of an all-powerful, omniscient, omni-present deity “looking down” and judging all creatures (‘we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Paul writes in Romans 3:23), adult humans have lived with the underground current, sometimes silent and sometimes not so much, of imperfection, inadequacy, and its concomitant, false modesty, that makes it not only facile but ubiquitous to equate modesty, humility and the potential negative judgement of the other as a starting point in any new encounter. Libraries filled with trees of pages lined with gallons of ink have been written in various attempts to off-set this original sin, not totally disconnected from the Genesis Original Sin of Adam and Eve. And the church has historically attempted to frame a theology of redemption through the Atonement of the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ Resurrected. Nevertheless, the inauthentic self has multiple seeds in the original plant, propagated by centuries of some vain and some legitimate lives of discipleship and reflection. Another different yet scriptural notion of humanity, created in the image of God (imago dei) has taken second or even worse, last place in the theology and the psychology of the church. To focus on gender identity, as the prime underlying interpretation of this concept, is, however, to impose a reductionism on the phrase, not so surprising given the church’s fixation with sexuality, as a prime identifier both of Christian morality and ethics, and of human beings generally. (The concept of sexual inadequacy is a topic for another space and time, although it too comprises another of the many faces of inadequacy imposed on and imagined by many!)
I have visited too many palliative patients, again mostly men, who have expressed deep and profound anxiety at not being good enough to die and to meet God, as one significant restrictive legacy from Christian church teachings. This notion of our relationship to God, while the most complex and significant of all human relationships, whether articulated or merely felt, is an issue with which each of us struggles. And there is serious justification for the Jewish view that we are unable to know the mind of God, not so much as a way to ignore or minimize the impact of God, but to acknowledge the limits of both the intellect and the imagination of all humans, in the face of such an ineffable and unknowable Being.
If we are to listen to Buber’s guidance, and to take it to heart, then we have to be alert to our own potential to make assumptions both about the other and about ourselves which fail to reach audibility and lie ‘hidden’ in our self-talk, without our having to face such talk. The twelve-step program speaks about ‘stinking-thinking’ as one of the identifiers of the alcohol-dependent man or woman. IT would seem reasonable to include Buber’s insight as part of what our culture might consider ‘stinking-thinking’. Yet, there are no pills to eliminate or ameliorate its insistence and persistence in our mind-set.
And the process of our spiritual development too depends on the sources and the influences to which we are exposed, introduced and whose teachings we attempt to assimilate.
Everywhere we hear that systemic racism infects each and every public institution, and consequently it is another of the “poisons” which have to be “excised” from our institutions and from our culture. And we are apparently hell-bent to achieve that excision, or perhaps neutralization as if the poison were an acid needing a salt to neutralize it. Surgery and/or chemistry, while valid, are not going to remove this stain on our heartsandminds, and thereby from our public institutions.
Racism, like other forms of prejudice, bigotry, hate, contempt and all of the many ways and situations in which it overwhelms us, is rooted in fear, in the false anticipation that the other is not “safe” and not “right” and not “without being drugged/drunk/high/in seizure….and that perception/anticipation/assumption comes first of all from inside each of us. Identifying with those who live under the overpasses of our cities, is still beyond the reach of our imagination for many. Identifying with someone struggling with mental illness of any sort is still beyond the reach of most of us. Identifying with the victim in a domestic violence situation is still beyond the reach of most of us. Identifying with the child who is physically and emotionally and sexually abused is still beyond the reach of the imagination of most of us. Momentarily, when we learn of an incident that betrays our sense of how things should be, we are alarmed, perhaps even disgusted, and perhaps even angry. Yet, in the next moment, we turn to the next headline, like those people in Frost’s poem “Out, Out” when the boy’s hand has been severed by the wood saw,
They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing! And that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs. (from poetryfoundation.org)
It is true that these latest protests have a different ‘ring’ and ‘tone’ and potential to their duration, intention and resilience. And one can hope that some legislative steps are taken to alleviate the rain of death on black and brown primarily young men, at the hands of primarily white law enforcement officers.
It is not incidental to note that working as an “alien” in the United States, one does feel “suspect” simply by being an outsider, different, and as a Canadian, a ‘pinko, communist bastard” as I was described by a white “Christian” in Nebraska. Was that comment racist? Of course! And it happened inside a so-called Christian church late in the twentieth century, not that long ago. Did I retaliate or respond? NO! Would I retaliate or respond today? Of course! And I would, I hope, say something like, “You know, you speak more about your own fear and vulnerability than you do about me whom you do not know, and apparently do not care to get to know!” Like that middle-aged woman above, I was in the process of applying for a job in a new congregation, and had just preached an “audition” homily and conducted an “audition” service, and to have confronted my ‘protester’ would have been a counter-intuitive move. Nevertheless, I do not regret not having been selected for that post.
False humility, like false superiority is a dangerous mask, almost interchangeable without much notice, from our faces, depending on the situation and our estimate of the situation we are about to face. False, of course, can be applied to many of the faces we put on “to meet the faces that we meet,” (T.S. Eliot, The lovesong of J. Alfred Profrock)….
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. (from poetryfoundation.org)
And indeed, it is time for us to stop taking time to “murder and create”…these are irreconcilable acts, in a civilized culture, whose civility is falling like salt from the cliffs of Dover into the sea. It is our civility and our decency, our common sense and our inherent and accessible better angels that we have apparently lost. And whether we have lost them in an obsessive-compulsive pursuit of something like vanity, and greed, and instant fame (or infamy, we seem not to care), or whether we have lost them because we believe everyone around us has sacrificed them on an altar of immediate gratification of whatever kind the menu offers, we are in danger of not being true to ourselves, and consequently not being true to the most disadvantaged among us who, themselves, can only weep in despair both for their own tragic and repeated losses and for our harsh boldness that we have the answers for their plight.
That, in itself, could be a sign that we have yet to accept our own complicity, both overt and covert, in a culture that relies on the lie of superiority/inferiority as a papier-mache foundational stone. That can only be another iteration of Lincoln’s house divided against itself that cannot stand.
"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.
We are now into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.
Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented.
In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall-but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old and well as new—North as well as South." (June 16, 1858, Springfield Illinois, from abrahamlincolnonline.org)
It would seem to this “alien” from Canada, that the United States, rather than finally making a choice between decency, respect and honour of its minority brown and black citizens has rather chosen a condescending and narcissistic path of wanting it both ways…to continue to abuse blacks and minorities and walk and talk as if the division has been put to rest.
The ghost of the deep dark Shadow history of the United States of America has been aroused, stuck in its side by the venomous arrow of white superiority which itself clings to another version of the “greatest show on earth” while the cliffs of truth, justice and authentic hope fall into the sea.
The United States, like each one of us, cannot be an authentic “self” so long as it clings to a mirage of how it wants to be seen by the world, without acknowledging the trap of its own making in which it struggles.