Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Strangeness

This post has been tweaked and retweaked.  Its themes have long been with me and can be filed under Family and Social Relations.  My editors, Todd and Cyril, both feel the post is a bit dark but we are going forward.

It begins with religion.

Years ago, I heard a minister define religion as "the human community.” The word comes from the Latin religio (obligation, bond), which derives from the verb religare (to bind).  Think "binding" words such as ligament, ligature, obligation, and "the human community" seems a workable definition.

   Get Together: The Youngbloods

This "binding" meaning of religion reminds me of numerous songs that are secularly religious.  A perfect folk-rock example would be "Get Together" (1967) by The Youngbloods, with its refrain:

     Come on people now                        
     Smile on your brother
     Everybody get together
     Try to love one another right now

The catchiness of "Get Together" belies its seriousness.  More than just a "let's be nice to each other" song, it begins with the lines:

     Love is but a song we sing
     And fear's the way we die

Love, expressiveness, opening up –– these oppose fear, insularity, a death of attachment.  Or so it seems to me.  But while opening up to others with a "one world" spirit of unity might seem "religious," it can also be suspect.   After 9/11, "Get Together" was put on a list of "lyrically questionable" songs by media giant Clear Channel Communications, which list was then distributed to over 12,000 radio stations.  In advocating fellowship, The Youngbloods ran afoul of the censorious.  (See "Get Together," or this blog, One Note Man.)

Potentially running into trouble is the least of it, in part because opening up to others may instead lead to pleasure, not rejection; in greater part, because "binding" with others takes effort.  Why?
Because it is easier to stay closed off and not learn about an unfamiliar someone.  After all, it takes little mental effort to maintain our default perspectives.  True learning requires attention and suspension of preconceptions –– it enlarges a mental room in which to accommodate the new.

Togetherness takes work then.  There actually is an "obligation" to suspend preformatted concepts so as to be capable of being surprised by the unexpected.

A poem that movingly distills this is "The Strangeness," by Stan Rice (The New Yorker, 3/6/00):

     The strangeness of others ––
     Even your sisters and brothers ––
     Is a responsibility to
     Overcome –– or some night they will be lying
     In a bed dying –– and how you loved them,
     Its quality –– will be as unknown
     To you as your own mother was
     While a living stranger.

Quite a poem.  What catches me is the word "responsibility."  It carries that sense of "obligation" and it brings that obligation down to earth.
These unknown "others" are not from different lands or in different skins, we are not “smiling" upon metaphoric brothers from different cultures or persuasions.  These others may in fact be our biological sisters and brothers –– and yet as strange to us as implicitly we are to them.  So we are all "living strangers" to one another; ironically, no more so than when we are among familiars.

Deeper still is that "how you loved them" may be unknown.  We are not just strange to one another, we are strange to ourselves, unaware of how others experience the “quality" of our love.  I may think I know you and love you well, you may be thinking no such thing.  So if there were to be a roadmap to self-knowledge, it might reasonably start with thoughtful attention to others; in particular, to how they have or have not been reached by us.  We might then know something of how we love them.  We might then not take our connections for granted.

There is important work to be done here and only so much time in which to do it.  The possibility of "human community" plays out against the reality of the human clock, which is always ticking.  One’s "sisters and brothers" will someday be "In a bed dying."  It would be a tragedy at their end-time to not know who those people were, and to not know who one was to them.  It might lead to feeling haunted, it might be the essence of feeling haunted.

Is this too serious, preachy even?  I hope not.  How I link up to readers of this blog hinges on the reach of my words and how those words are taken in.  What I think my message is may not at all be what you are hearing.  And that's probably always the case: maybe none of us ever hears exactly what the other is saying.  There is built-in imprecision as to who we are to one another; and that's on a good day, when the other is saying something and we are actually listening.

While not classically "religious," issues of knowing and being known, the obligation to try, finite time frames, these seem morally central –– crucially so, when one's "human community" is familiar and thus presumed to be known.  Because chances are we are less known to one another than we imagine, and that all knowledge is partial knowledge.  We should try to overcome the strangeness of others and self-with-others.

Let's put something out there, see if there is a response, allow for getting it all wrong and the possibility that others will get it all wrong. Let's allow for "right" and "wrong" to not be very useful concepts.  Let's keep putting it out there anyway, lets's do our best.

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