Saturday, May 19, 2018

Human Relationships: Getting Beyond the "Autonomous Self"

"Love, not hate!" Everybody talks about love today.

People agree that "loving others" is a fundamental attitude worth striving for. We are determined to be a loving, caring society. And this determination is earnest and sincere.

People try hard to love others. People do so many good things, make so many sacrifices, and dedicate themselves to programs of action for spreading love all through the world.

This results in some astonishing and inspiring achievements.

Still, the world we live in is full of hate. It is saturated with violence on every level of human interaction. Violence tinges all of us not only externally but also in our own hearts.

Who among us is not in some way affected by fear, selfishness, or resentment?

We inevitably face limitations in the world, in others, and within ourselves. Our aspirations to be loving people are frustrated and sometimes diverted down distorted paths that lead to new forms of violence and hatred.

Real love is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in our dreams. Its relentless demands can so easily make cowards of us all.

It doesn't help when we try to become loving persons by the energy of our own freedom conceived as an autonomous, self-defining force—a demiurge of self-fulfillment that we expect to coalesce with everyone else's self-defined ideas and impulses, and thereby somehow produce a wonderful harmony of love and understanding among us all.

We want love to work like magic.

Such is the expectation of the easy "love in our dreams" that is inevitably overwhelmed by the stubbornness of real persons and the slow, difficult, inescapable path of life as it is truly given to us. Real personal life can only flourish interpersonally; persons are fulfilled only through being-in-relationship with other persons.

Though everybody talks about love today, our society is stuck within an ideological and interactive framework of individualism. Too often, the very ideal of "love" in our society is reduced to a kind of "plan" of necessary or mutually satisfying engagements with one another that entail a minimum of commitment and risk. This shriveled form of love consists in isolated acts of assistance or benevolence between essentially solitary people who are afraid to be coinvolved in one another's lives, as persons, in freedom and relationship.

We want to satisfy ourselves according to our own autonomous self-definition, and then "help others" insofar as we choose to do so. Certainly, we want to respond to the suffering of others that stirs up our feelings of sorrow, and we hope that overall we will be very generous in our choices to help others. Most of us, after all, feel that it's important to be "loving people."

But still we want our relationships with others to be radically controlled by us and subject to our autonomy. We are afraid of the "letting-go," and indeed even the unmanageable and sometimes seemingly chaotic "leaping-into-the-dark" that are involved in living wholehearted relationships. But we must face the reality that we are not autonomous. We are in fact made to be together and entrusted to one another.

We depend on one another in reality. That is why, no matter how much we want to be "free" (in the sense of "free-from-relationship-with-others-as-intrinsic-to-the-path-to-our-destiny"), those other persons who have been given to us (our "neighbors") never seem to fit into the schemes we want to impose on them. They remain involved with "who we are," and we cannot escape being open and vulnerable to one another.

Thus, we cannot seal ourselves off in a self-contained, fully adequate, autonomous "capsule" that we imagine might protect us from the risk of love. Insofar as we try to live this delusion, we will only succeed in hating and hurting real people: others and ourselves.

We are persons called ineradicably to live in communion with other persons. We are called to give and receive love, on a path of life that involves a lot of preference, initiative, and choosing on our part, but that also involves openness and responsiveness to what has been given to us.

We don't radically determine our own lives and identity. Our creativity and freedom belong not only to our initiatives, but also to our cooperation, our openness to the freedom of others, our courtesy and hospitality, our gratitude, our solidarity and compassion, our willingness to forgive, and even our suffering.

How can we move beyond the crippling, violence-engendering fear of living as fully human persons? How can we discover that the apparent limitations that challenge us in our being-together-with-others are in reality the great spaces that open us up to the fulfillment of our existence as persons, the fulfillment of real freedom? be continued...