Becoming Conscious of the ‘Other Other’ [2]

Other Other [1]

Our attempts to engage ‘the other’ open us up to real complications – in particular with regard to the ‘other others’ who are by definition not being helped by us if we are focusing on helping one set of others. We might generously let someone pull out in front of us in a line of traffic, but this might be profoundly unhelpful to the person behind us whom we can’t see, who is trying to get to an urgent appointment.

As Gav pointed out in the comments on the previous post, once we start thinking about trying to help the ‘other other’ we are immediately caught in a loop which goes on to the ‘other other other’ and beyond into absurdity.

The question then becomes, what can I do in response to this? One answer is to do nothing. I can’t help anyone without potentially hurting someone else – I can’t let someone out into traffic without potentially messing up someone else’s journey – so I should do nothing and just get on with my own life. I hope that we can dismiss this as a lazy and selfish response that denies our human ability to act and do good.

I have seen some evidence of this path being taken, but far more common is the alternative which is to attempt to do everything. And I’ve seen too many Christian ministers attempting this to even begin to count them. There is so much need, so much hurt, so many people to minister to that I need to give every single moment to serving the other and the other others and the other other others… until I burn out and drop down dead.

In ‘Other’ I quote John Milbank, who uses the example of our debt of gratitude to those who have given their lives in war for our freedom:

‘Where I cannot be reconciled with the lost one, I owe him an infinite debt of mourning and regret. So great a debt do I in fact owe, that my energies cannot legitimately be freed up to perform my duties towards the living. But those demands of the living also are infinite and infinitely legitimate, and so, here […] arises an irresolvable problem: I should not cease mourning and apologizing, and yet I should.’

Having been ‘saved’ we owe such an infinite debt of gratitude that we simply cannot work hard enough to repay it. So we work so so hard, so hard that we don’t see our families, so hard that we don’t get recreation time, so hard that we don’t see that we are killing ourselves in the process…

Earlier in the book I encourage people to ‘forget about resurrection’ – because living in the comfortable knowledge of it leads to apathy and no motivation to act. But it is here in the face of this infinite debt that resurrection comes back to us from the dead:

It is faith in resurrection that prevents us from being obliterated by this huge obligation to serve the whole mass of needy humanity.

A belief that ‘this is not it’ is dangerous because it can appear to legitimize inaction in the face of human rights abuses and environmental catastrophe. But the hope of resurrection also frees us from the infinite obligation to have to serve every single other in every part of our lives. And it’s from this base that we can move forward, slip the deadlock, and actually begin to act in good faith.

Buy ‘Other: Loving Self, God and Neighbour in a World of Fractures‘ now.


4 responses to “Becoming Conscious of the ‘Other Other’ [2]”

  1. acetate monkey

    It finally came today! Along with the copies I’m giving as Santa’s little helper 🙂

  2. I am new here so please forgive me if I am bringing up past posts/conversations but what would the notion that there is no true “other” bring to this discussion? Much of theology and now quantum theory is converging on the idea that any notion of individuality and otherness is merely illusory and clouds the truth…in effect that we are all One. What are the practical implications of this? If I believe that there is no self, then I will have to question that self which seems to require that I make value judgements. If I recognize that these judgements that I am constantly making are in fact nothing more than my ego’s need to project and define itself, I may be liberated from making said judgements alltogether. In that event, I can let events happen as they must, and not worry myself with the lil’ old lady in front of me, for it simply is what it is, and she has her own role to fill. Now, this gets more difficult when we think about a Hitler or some other sociopath, but then again, we must consider the actions that would set the stage for a Hitler in the first place. Thanks for this forum, and I look forward to talking with you all further.

  3. Thanks for posting – you’re very welcome!

    Much of theology and now quantum theory is converging on the idea that any notion of individuality and otherness is merely illusory and clouds the truth…in effect that we are all One.

    I think there’s a real danger here, which I try to outline in the book. Our existence is within the tension of separation and binding. If we collapse that tension either way we both lose something of our humanity and open ourselves up to genuine problems.

    One way to collapse it is to say ‘there is no community – we are all just separate people’ – in other words, there is no ‘other’ there is just me, myself, and looking after no. 1. We can see the obvious dangers in this. The cult of the individual has left us with a ravaged planet and broken society.

    But I think what you are saying above collapses things the other way. To say that ‘there is no other’ and that ‘we are all One’ leaves us bound to one another but with no proper sense of individuation. We thus end up with reduced personal responsibility. The fact is that I do and can have an impact on ‘the other’ – on the lil old lady – and I do have a responsibility to think about how I act in relation to others. What we must do is live in the tension of being both separate from one another, and bound to each other too.

  4. I too have wrestled with that point of collapse, and the notion that it might lead to lapses in personal responsibility. In practice however, I have found that the opposite is true. In those brief and fleeting moments in my life where I had acted truly selfless I had also acted in compassion and solidarity. It is the belief that we are not individual per se which opens up the door to the Kingdom, at least that is the direction I am headed at this point. I have found that true surrender, true lack of self-hood, true unification in Christ leads to the utter fredom to serve. Rather than a lack of initiative, I have found that it becomes imperative that I engage my brothers and sisters. I am therefore liberated from judgement and egocentric notions of identity that might prohibit my identification with the “other.”

    I guess we can look at the distinction between individuality and personality as well. Unification is paradoxical that it is only by living together that we reach true complexity, and true identity. Maybe that is the tension you are talking about, and I was just too obtuse to get it?

    I can’t wait to read your books!