This one is going to be a little philosophical. You’ve been warned.
Having a kid is a cataclysmic event. Yes, the panic of it all and the immense surreality of childbirth, to be sure. But, there is an unsettling that goes well beyond the agony and ecstasy. Otherness. This is a thing that truly perturbs our sense of Being, whether to the heights of wonder ala the sublime utterance of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables…
“To love another person is to see the face of God”
… or to the depths of despair and estrangement, voiced by the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre in his play, “No Exit”
“Hell is other people”
In philosophical jargon, Otherness refers to the massive distance that exists between any two conscious minds- the gulf provided by radical subjectivity. The way I think, value, and decide is uniquely my own and unable to be immediately translated without the aid of clumsy language. We are all alien to each other. Maybe you’ve been in the middle of an argument with a friend and just thrown up your hands in exasperation and said: “I just wish that I could somehow put my brain into your head for one minute, and then you would see what I see!” If so, then you are familiar with the kind of frustration (if not violence) that Otherness is able to engender.
Another feature of Otherness that makes it threatening is what I will call the fear of “assimilation”. Our ideas, beliefs, and choices are a huge part of who we are. A significant engagement with another mind means the possibility of amending your previously held positions, perhaps even the wholesale denial thereof. By extension then, being present to an Other is the potential extinction of your Self, at least in the way you knew it- hence the threat. This angst is often intimated in the teenager pleading with a parent about “being their own person”.
That’s fitting, I think. The relationship between parent and child is in constant tension concerning Otherness from the very start. To start, they’re YOU! But not quite. You can see yourself in their visage and their temperament, but there are Others already present in their makeup. You must teach and influence, but you must not overwhelm their identity in the process. They are yours. But they are not just yours. And, part of the parenting project is to one day see them be their own. It’s like Otherness on training wheels. And, I think that there is a moral lesson to be mined from this unique relational dynamic:
Love stands in a disposition of friendliness to an Other, even in their strangeness.
Family members do this for each other by extending hopefulness and charity in situations where their familiar bond has been challenged by life’s troubles. When your brother goes through a rough adolescent drug problem, you don’t relegate him to just another “junkie”. Instead, you take into account the underlying realities at play and approach him with openness. You don’t let it define him. When your teenage daughter genuinely SEEMS like a stranger, you don’t treat her as such. Instead, you remember your own experiences in ways that seek points of commonality and foster understanding.
It sounds simple, I know, but I believe we have gotten this idea frightfully backward as far as it pertains to the world beyond our family life. You see, we don’t extend the allegory from its source. We don’t let our closest strangers (our family) inform the way we treat the ones at the fringes (everyone else). Instead, we cloister ourselves away as clans, interacting with Other names only when competition is concerned. Hatfields and McCoys. Montagues and Capulets. We cling closely to the familiar and eschew what is foreign.
In doing so, we reduce our affection to mere nepotism.
It is time that we revived that narrative strand from family life again, the one that causes us to expand rather than retract.
There is a reason that God is often called our Father…
The Earth our Mother…
All people our brothers and sisters…
Even the creatures our cousins…
Because the Family is, first and foremost, not an institution, nor an economic unit- but a grand metaphor for the interconnectedness of us all.
Look out for each Other.