Empathy: Seeing Myself as The Other Sees Me [2]


I’m interested in this short series in trying to reflect on the best ground for our attempts to empathise with ‘the other.’ In the first post I ended by suggesting that it would be fruitful to consider where our fears of engaging the other lie. So here we go:

It seems to me that Levinas would argue that we fear connection with the other because we have unresolved fears about them within ourselves. Zizek, on the other hand, would appear to argue that we fear connection with the other because we are wary that the other has unresolved fears within themselves. I may have this wrong, but my perception is that for Levinas the problem is the ‘enigma of the other,’ whereas for Zizek the problem is the ‘enigma in the other.’

Supporting this arguement, Zizek quotes Hegel’s famous dictum (discussed by Pete Rollins here) that ‘the enigmas of the Ancient Egyptians were also enigmas for the Egyptians themselves.’ From Levinas’ standpoint, we are wary of these mysterious ancients because we don’t understand them – their actions and language are strange to us. But for Zizek/Lacan/Hegel that is not enough: we should be wary of the Ancient Egyptians because their actions were strange even to themselves. In other words, if we were to engage them it would not be simply a case of overcoming our fears of their strange ways, but but reconciling ourselves to the fact that they have not overcome their own fear of their own strangeness.

This then reflects back on to us, and our consciousness of the enigmas within each of us too. As Pete has noted:

In short, if we find ourselves getting frustrated by the enigmatic actions of those we love we must remind ourselves that our own actions are just as mysterious and require just as much hard work to decipher.

An interesting theological thought-experiment around this concerns the moments just before the incarnation, that engagement with the other par excellence. And it’s to that we’ll turn in the next post.


4 responses to “Empathy: Seeing Myself as The Other Sees Me [2]”

  1. As I have no experience w/ the original texts, I’m sure there’s quite a bit I’m missing. But is it not possible to find a place where we embrace the other in spite of (or perhaps because of) their own internal enigma? Where we overcome our own fear to the degree that we see the other as an adventure? a sort of compelling marvel? Their own mystery–to themselves and to us–can be (and often is) a source of frustration and relational strain–but can also potentially be a marvelous gift of discovery.

  2. It doesn’t seem like you are heading toward positing a prescriptive solution; rather, that you are attempting to describe the situation (and perhaps problem) as you see it. As such, since my comment veers into the prescriptive, you’ll have to excuse me. One of the problems, as I see it, with not subject/object relation theory but actual subject/object processing by the intellect is that the latter tends to begin a process by which the subject invariably will estrange her/himself from the object, from the process of contemplation itself and perhaps even more dangerously, from her/himself as well.

    You are right to say that there is something curious about the way in which persons interact with others, whether we call them neighbors, others, fellow Christians, etc. Namely, that curious element seems to be connected to the process of what a subject sees beyond the object (other objects, idealized objects, an objectified self or perhaps, as you note, even The Idealized Subject). My ethical speculation is this: a subject cannot go too far in seeing beyond the object before him/her (such as seeing God or seeing oneself) as this is a self-defeating course of action leading to estrangement if not alienation. A healthy distancing from what most people call reality ought to only be present if it remains in the state in which I describe it: healthy. It seems to me that there exists great possibilities for a person being able to see in ways that transcends mechanistic relations betwixt persons – as long as that doesn’t become an end-in-itself. It must be tempered by a complete grounding in the present, as well as the past and future which precede and succeed it.

    Finally, we also run the danger of not only a self-defeating course of action – but an other-defeating course of action. To see the other as something more than they have communicated (such as seeing them as a young, idealized version of ourselves or as our racist grandfather) can present difficulties when attempting to exist in a world marked by relations. We run the risk of treating persons not as themselves, but as what our body of knowledge and existence tells us they must be like. Truly – a potentially frightening thought.

    Thanks for your post. I’m going to need to revisit a couple Levinas texts now…

  3. Thanks for your comments KMD. Good stuff. In the writing I’m doing at the moment there is quite lot of description, but I hope there is also going to be some very practical stuff too. One of the lines I’ve been mulling is that ‘I wrote The Complex Christ/Signs of Emergence to challenge others; I’m writing this to challenge myself.’ So clearly, if there is no practical outcome, I’ll have failed in that. Thanks for the challenge.

  4. As a religious satirist, I am not a fan of navel gazing as it often produces belly button lint collections and Oprah-eseque type products. But when taken in small doses, the Myers Briggs and especially the enneagram were helpful tools in exposing my fear of those who exhibit similar personality traits. (My opposite personality type tends to tick me off but that’s another story.) In interacting with my mirror image, I experience my own flaws in a visceral and raw manner than could make me go mad were it not for the grace of God. So the challenge for me is to dance with that person for in loving them, I embrace myself.(I don’t get the same experience watching myself on video or in photographs for there I’m seeing a two dimensional view that I can analyze and critique from a distance.)

    BTW-I am not about to debate this whole fracas re: who is/isn’t a theologian on the grounds that the angels dancing on the head of a pin are about to do the can-can. This will answer the age old riddle – do Scottish angels wear anything under their kilts? Now there’s a dissertation waiting to happen. 🙂