Saturday, September 24, 2016

Seeing Others as Ourselves, and Ourselves as Others

What does it mean to “love your neighbor as yourself”? Does it mean to love your neighbor as you yourself would want to be loved? Does it mean to care for your neighbor’s well-being as much as you care for your own well-being? Does it mean to love your neighbor as if you yourself were your neighbor and you were in the same situation that your neighbor finds himself or herself in?
      Who exactly is your neighbor? Can your neighbor be anyone you meet, regardless of the particular neighborhood or community they belong to?
      What does it mean to love another (or the other) as self, to love the other as other, to love the self as self, and to love the self as other?
      When we love others as ourselves, we may act for their benefit as often as, or even more often than, we act for our own benefit. We may indeed see their benefit as no different from our own benefit. We may see others as having the same basic needs, interests, and concerns that we have. We may empathize with them when they suffer loss or misfortune, and we may try to “put ourselves in their shoes” when we make judgments about their actions.
      We may also find that seeing ourselves as others is inseparable from seeing others as ourselves. Seeing ourselves as others and seeing others as ourselves may be complementary aspects of self-awareness and social understanding. They both may be ways of becoming ourselves. They may also be ways of transcending ourselves.
       When we see others as ourselves, we cannot ignore them when they are suffering or in distress. Their well-being may become as important to us as our own well-being. We may discover that by promoting their well-being, we also promote our own well-being. We may then need to recognize that from their perspective, we may be the “others.” We may need to recognize our own otherness, and to ask ourselves whether our whole way of conceptualizing sameness and otherness needs to be revised and rethought.
      When we love others as ourselves, their suffering may indirectly become our own suffering, but we still do not directly experience their suffering unless we take that suffering directly upon ourselves in an effort to comfort or relieve them. If we are truly altruistic, then we will, if necessary, sacrifice our own comfort and security in order to relieve the suffering of others, and we will take upon ourselves the task of removing all suffering. We will also show compassion toward those whose suffering cannot be completely remedied or relieved.
      When we love others as others, we love them in all their difference(s) from us. We may even love them for their difference(s) from us. We may celebrate, rather than disparage or mistrust, their difference(s).
       When we love others as others, we also love them for who they are, rather than for who we want them to be. We respect their differences, rather than try to contest or change them. We accept their otherness, and love them without trying to deny or erase their difference(s).
      On the other hand, when we see others as others, we may sometimes make the mistake of seeing only their difference(s) from us. We may try to maintain their otherness, rather than see them as more or less the same as, or similar to, ourselves. We may try to separate ourselves from them, rather than recognize the ways in which they share with us the same basic needs, interests, and concerns. We may see them as others simply because we are ignorant about, or do not really know, them.
      If the idea of seeing others as ourselves makes us feel apprehensive, uncertain, or insecure, then we may also try to maintain their otherness for the sake of our own perceived self-interest. We may see others as fundamentally different from ourselves, even when such an attitude is based on implicit or explicit bias (racial, ethnic, gender, religious, social, or cultural), rather than on objective assessment.
      We may therefore see others as others approvingly or disapprovingly. If we see them as others disapprovingly, then we may try to maintain their otherness, rather than try to see their being in the same way that we see our own being.
      Luce Irigaray (2000), in an interview concerning her book I Love to You: Sketch for a Felicity Within History (1996), says, “’I Love to You’ means: I don’t take you as an object of my love or desire. I love you as irreducibly other. I keep a ‘to’ as an inalienable space between us, a guarantor of your freedom and mine…I protect the two that we are and the relationship between this two: I love to you like I talk to you…”I love to you” means that I will never entirely know you and that to love you implies respecting the mystery that you will always be for me.”1
     The “others” for us may be those who are (racially, ethnically, sexually, politically, socially, or culturally) different from us. But we ourselves are all, to some extent, different from one another. We all are “others” to, or for, others.
      We also are more or less psychologically, emotionally, and cognitively different from one another. We all may to some extent differ in our perceptions of ourselves and of one another.
      There may also be a true and a false sense of otherness. We may sometimes feel as if we are others, when in fact we are not. We may try to become others by appropriating their otherness, but we may not obtain a true otherness by doing so. We may indeed only obtain a false sense of otherness and of being outsiders, when in fact we are merely others and outsiders by choice. The true outsiders may be those who have been excluded by the insiders.
      On the other hand, we may not always be aware of our own otherness. We may have a false sense of being accepted as the same, when in fact we are not accepted as the same, and are different.
      As others, we may sometimes be made objects of suspicion, ridicule, derision, and contempt by those who want to subjugate, oppress, and impose otherness on us. We may be made victims of (racial, ethnic, gender, religious, social, or cultural) prejudice and discrimination. We may be unfairly perceived as interlopers or trespassers.
     We each may have to ask ourselves, “Who am I?” But we may find that we can only answer, “I am myself” or “I am the other.”
      If we love the self as self, then we may see the self as self, and not as other. We may, however, also become selfish or solipsistic. We may put our own interests and concerns before the interests and concerns of others. Our own self-love may guide our attitudes and actions toward others. We may be narcissistic in our concern for, or about, ourselves. We may look favorably on ourselves and unfavorably on others, simply because we see ourselves as different from them, and see them as different from us.
      On the other hand, if we love the self as other, then we may see ourselves as in some way strange and not understood by (or not understandable to) us. We may see ourselves as alien or unknown to us.
      Emmanuel Levinas (1961) describes “Welcoming the Other” as a mode of subjectivity that places the freedom of the self in question, because the self is faced with the infinity of the Other. The self remains free by separating itself from the Other, but the self is responsible for the decisions it makes regarding the use of its own freedom.2
      The dialectic of self and other is also the dialectic of “we” and “they.” “We” are the same or similar, while “they” are different. “We” belong to the same group or community, while “they” are others or outsiders.
      Welcoming others may consist of inviting them to become members of our (residential, professional, academic, religious, social, or cultural) community. It may also be a means of affirming the aims, interests, and concerns we share in common. It may also be a means of promoting social and cultural pluralism.


1Luce irigaray, “Different from You/Different Between Us,” in Why Different? A Culture of Two Subjects: Interviews with Luce Irigaray, edited by Luce irigaray and Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), 2000), p. 81.
2Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Totalité et Infini, 1961), translated by Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), pp. 27, 85.

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