Here is not an Indifferent Place
Here, for example, is not an indifferent place.
Happy Thanksgiving to anyone reading this piece. Yes, it is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. For some it is a day without work unless, of course, you count the interaction with relatives work. For others, Thanksgiving is a day for reflection set aside to contemplate all of the things for which one is grateful; it matters little whether one is grateful to a deity, a gaggle of deities, or that one eschews religious or theistic connections to find a place for gratitude. It is not necessary to be grateful to something rather one is grateful for something. As a modifier, grateful stands on its own two feet without the necessity for an object to which one is grateful. I am grateful for something is as clever a use of the modifier as being grateful to something or another is. The distinction between “for” and “to” is one worth exploring; it is not indifferent nor is it neutral, rather it is a distinction that marks the boundary between ethical responsibility and social compliance.
Let me announce two things for which I am grateful: First, I am grateful for my wife (tomorrow we celebrate 26 years of marriage) without whom I would not be the man I have become. Secondly, I am grateful for my diagnosis of cancer without which I would not have had to explore theoretical ethical obligations with the object of discovering practical applications for otherwise theoretical platitudes. I suspect these two items on my list of gratitude are deeply connected. Without Susan, I might have continued to live a life of wandering from pillar to post “with no direction home, a complete unknown” and no focus. I became a teacher because she opened the door to teaching as a real possibility and that, in turn, opened the door to an examined life in which thinking about things and discovering ideas, both old and new, was engaging and, even more importantly, fun. But all that exploration was just that, exploration, until I heard the words “You have cancer.”
There is little else that focuses one on one’s own mortality than facing a life-threatening disease. In my case, that focus turned to that which I know, that which I learned from Emmanuel Levinas, that which Hillary Putnam calls the fundamental ethical obligation in order to find a practical application, one that would allow for the deeper practice of an ethical life. The fundamental ethical obligation is the obligation to be available for the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. Substantially different from Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship primarily because the I-Thou requires reciprocation, Levinas’s ethical obligation proposes that one announce one’s presence to the other, thereby creating a proximity, a nearness without the barrier of space or time, while, simultaneously, waiting for a response that may never come. This is a responsibility for and is, therefore, quite unlike Buber’s responsibility to, the other.
On this Thanksgiving Day, it occurred to me that writing this blog is not an indifferent act, rather it is one of announcement, of “Here I Am!” made without reservation and without any expectation of reciprocation. I invite others to join in this conversation through comments but I cannot expect people to accept that invitation. It is quite enough to make the announcement, create a proximate place, and then wait, to sit quietly and listen to the absolute silence of the almost infinite universe.
So Happy Thanksgiving…Take some time to reflect on what you are grateful for! You may find unexpected surprises buried underneath the rubble of the lived-experience. I certainly did!