Solitude: The Irreplaceable “I”
Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics creates an impossible condition, that of being present for the other; of being responsible for the other person without reservation or expectation. Fundamentally, the self is irreplaceable in the sense that absolutely no other person can substitute for the self to act upon this sole responsibility. In a social world, this responsibility can only be performed by the self, the irreplaceable “I.” Along with this astonishing responsibility comes the solitude of responsibility. There are no rules to follow, no guidelines, no legalities, just the terrifying knowledge that the “I” is irreplaceable. Contained in this idea of responsibility is the very notion that one truly is one’s brothers keeper.
But, there are moments in one’s life where the outward looking self is required to turn inward, to look for strength within because one faces adversity that is overwhelming. Protecting interiority is, during these moments, more important than the exteriority of the other. Moments like the death of a loved one, the loss of a child, the breakup of a long-term relationship all cause one to turn inward in order to deal with the emotional pain involved with the experience. These moments are generally short-lived but purposeful in their ability to cleanse the self and to return to a normal (whatever that is) life.
Having a diagnosis of prostate cancer is, it seems, one of those moments. Unlike the death of another, facing one’s own mortality requires one to dig down deeply into one’s own interiority to find the strength to fight. It is an interesting place to be, focused on myself and my determination to fight this disease. On the surface, everything appears to be unchanged. I am still spending time with friends, reading the books I love, thinking about the ethical applied to education and making future plans. But that is the face I present to the world. The face I present to myself is quite different. It is dogged by the constant knowledge that I have cancer, that my mother died from ovarian cancer, that my father survived lung cancer only to die from what the doctors thought was an after effect of the radiation he received fighting his cancer, that my paternal grandmother died from an unnamed abdominal cancer when I was fourteen (my first encounter of the death of a loved one). As I sit and wait for a more detailed diagnosis so that treatment can begin, I realize that only I can participate in fighting my very own cancer. No other person can replace me as I hunker down to focus my strength on the battle to come.
Sure, I will have a team of doctors focused on state of the art treatments, nurses that focus their partial attention on me, a wife whom I love but who likes to hover, children and grandchildren who will not learn of my struggles unless they come upon this blog, and friends who will show concern. But in the end, none of them can substitute for me. I fight this disease alone, in solitude, while surrounded by friends and family. The solitude comes from this irreplaceability; it is nothing, however, if not a place to find and develop the strength to face the absolute unknown with dignity and deference.