Monday, 29 January 2018

Capacity for otherness

Moma conner untitledfrommandalaseries ct2538 06 x2016

1390 words, 7 min read

A couple of weeks ago I had an article recommended to me that I then read and greatly appreciated. Since the original is in Spanish, I would here like to offer a quick translation of the text to English, since I believe that it has a high degree of relevance and value beyond its original context. The article is entitled "A space yet to be discovered" and was written by the Catalan Jesuit, Xavier Melloni, in response to the current, tense political situation in Catalonia. Here Melloni offers his perspective on what it takes to truly dialogue with another person, which is something that is needed everywhere and at all times.

In view of the events of recent months in Catalonia, the assessments and interpretations we have made have grown out of our own positions. At first it can not be otherwise, because we do not see reality as it is, but as we are. There is no objective reality and subjective perception, instead at the moment of perceiving reality we are already configuring and co-creating it with our categories. Starting from this assessment, is essential to avoid falling into moral judgments about the opinions of others, because opinion is preceded by perception, at the same time as perception being conditioned by opinion, because every cognitive act is both affective and perceptive. Now, if we want to go beyond the increasingly polarized, tense and entrenched situation in which we find ourselves, we have to find a place that transcends us and makes us all grow. This place is not behind us, as if nothing had happened, but within each one of us and in front of us, in a space still to be discovered and created. A space that will only appear and will only be reached when we are capable of mutual recognition, which also involves the ability to recognize one's own excesses or mistakes.

So much is the vehemence of our positions that we do not have nor leave space for the other. We are facing an important and delicate issue that corresponds to the third and fourth needs according to the scale of Abraham Maslow: the sense of belonging and the need for recognition, issues that revolve around identity. Leaving space for the other does not mean confusing ourselves with them or submitting to their point of view, instead it implies considering them seriously and tenaciously as part of the reality that we both (three, four, hundreds, thousands, millions of citizens) are parts of. We are all parts of everything and we are parts of an All. We must come to accept that the other's point of view is as necessary and valid as our own and welcome it, just as we expect the other to do so with regard to ourselves. For this to be possible, the first step is to avoid judgment, to not dismiss the other. I can only maintain my own position with nobility if I consider that the position of the other is also noble and that they, as I do, look for their sense of belonging and for their need for recognition. Every time I think or say that the other is stupid or lies, we are annihilating them and committing mental or verbal violence against them, even if they do not hear us. We have to arrive at a vote of confidence in the other having some reasons in terms of which they perceive-interpret events in a way that is different and even opposed to mine, but that this does not mean that they lie, just as I hope that they do not consider me an idiot or a liar either, because I perceive-interpret things in a way opposite to theirs.

If we are able to have such openness and such respect, many things will follow, since an affective and cognitive space will appear where the other is present also. This nobility and generosity towards the other, this vote of firm and sustained confidence is put to the test when the other then does not give me space, when I do not feel that they recognize me. It is then easy to give in and respond with the same dismissal and judgment that I receive.

The principles of non-violence are very demanding and their fruits tend to be long-term. Only rarely are they immediate. But this is the test that a confrontation must go through if it wants to be noble. If the confrontation is noble, it will ennoble those who participate in it and they will turn it into fertile dialogue. If it is vile, confrontation will degrade them. It is difficult, very difficult, to persist in the non-dismissal of the other when their opinion, attitude or action are opposed to our own. But it is here that the extent to which we have integrated the values of the Gospel into our lives, which are the same as those of non-violence, manifests itself. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: "“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (Mt 5:21-22).

What Jesus means is that when we insult someone, we are killing them. We kill them because we do not recognize them, because we eliminate them by condemning them to the categories we have assigned them. The other cannot be recognized in the image I have made of him. Then I cannot expect them to recognize me either. An abyss has been created between the two. We are both condemned by the other. This is the fire by which we are consumed. What is the way out of this hell? “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.” (Mt 5:38-41).

The bar is very high, as high are the flames of the fire that devours us and as tall are the walls that we must transcend to find the place where we still are not.

This is not naiveté or “do-goodery", instead they are the conditions for the possibility of a new way of existing and co-existing that can be born in each moment if we apply ourselves to it. The challenge is to convert every act, every word and every thought into a spiritual exercise. I understand by "spiritual" the open and available space that exists between me and the other, beyond and deeper than our understandable, but visceral and totally insufficient, reactions. Political and civic life are urgently in need of this demanding exercise of the containment and transcendence of our positions that are still too primary and emotional. The emotions are intense, but ephemeral. What remains are acts and we still have time to reorient them towards the creation of a common space.

Space widens when we look, speak and act from a broader perspective that includes the other. Conversely, when we absolutize our point of view, we constrain our inner space and also the common space and we tear each other apart because there is no space for everyone. We cannot wait to open this space until the other is willing to do so. It begins to appear when one takes the first step and acts with courage and generosity, giving a vote of confidence to the other, as many times as necessary. “As many as seven times?” “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Mt 18:21-22).

Each one of those times brings me closer to the other, who, feeling recognized, sooner or later will also recognize me and we will discover a space that is fruitful for all. Is not this the opportunity we have to grow together in greater capacity for otherness?