Here I Am: Ethical Engagement with the Infinite
Last June I had a total knee replacement. It is now the end of October, nearly four months since that surgery and I am about to finish my physical therapy today. Now it is not that the knee is fully recovered, but I no longer think about it the first thing in the morning, all day long and the last thing before I go to sleep. It must be getting better. So rather than completing that recovery before having to face another major medical problem, I get whacked over the head with prostate cancer. Who ever thought life was fair.
I have been convinced for quite some time that the universe is a very large random number generator, that probabilities rule, that there is little purpose in the universe save for the personal responsibility asymmetrically undertaken to live an ethical life. To command the other to command me is the essence of the ethical project of Emmanuel Levinas. I take that responsibility quite seriously and now that my own mortality is called into sharp focus, the impossibility suggested by that asymmetrical ethical stance is being put to the test. I cannot ask for a stand-in, for a substitute, as I come face-to-face with the otherness of the infinity of death. Oh, I don’t think it is an imminent possibility, but the truth is that I have a disease that is likely to end my life; a daunting reality to say the least but the simple truth is that I must face this possibility alone while surrounded by friends and family.
Not only is there no stand-in for my death, there is no stand-in for me as I fight to remain alive, to battle this disease with every ounce of my resolve and strength. While surrounded with support, I am the one that must live at this very moment; only by living in the moment will I find the resolve to play my part. If I spend too much time regretting the past or projecting into the future I will be unable to live at this very moment; I will be unable to present myself by crying out “Here I Am” as a presentation without reservation to the work that I must do.
At this very moment, my work is to wait patiently. I cannot push Monday to this moment so I will sit and wait. My plans call for me to complete physical therapy today, pick up veggies at the Farmers Market on Saturday, help a friend design a website for his mayoral campaign in the afternoon, visit my 7 month old grandson on Sunday, cheer for the Bears on Sunday. On Monday I’ll go to the hospital to have the bone and ct-scans and then I’ll go back into waiting mode. It seems so simple.
For years I told my students a simple Zen story, one I feel compelled to repeat here:
There was a young monk seeking enlightenment but it wouldn’t come. One day he went to his master asking, “Why can I not find enlightenment?” His master replied, “Have you had your supper?” The monk responded with a terse, “Yes.” The master said, “Go and do your dishes.” The monk was immediately enlightened.
If I keep doing that which is directly in front of me, that which needs doing, then I am taking responsibility for the very responsibility of the other, those other people I meet as I shout silently, “Here I Am!”