Each man has an infinite sphere of responsibility, responsibility before the infinite. He moves, he talks, he looks and each of his movements, each of his words, each of his glances causes waves to surge in the happening of the world: he cannot know how strong and how far-reaching.
In Buber’s terms, one is responsible before the infinite but what exactly does this mean. As I came face to face with my own mortality, it became clearer to me that this responsibility Buber talks about is closely related to the responsibility Levinas talks about with one immense difference. Buber is addressing the ontological nature of being while Levinas disregards the ontological in favor of the ethical. Both thinkers, however, are honing in on a point that cannot be taken lightly; as human beings we are required to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst without reservation and without considering an obligation to reciprocate.
It is, for both men, an obligation one has as s/he seeks the infinite; the absolute unknown that is represented in any number of ways within theist and non-theist cults. Levinas goes a step beyond and argues that even if there is no god or gods that one has an obligation to act as if there is one. Learning to approach the infinite, one need only approach the other without reservation. By doing so, at least in Levinas’s terms, one has the opportunity to see a reflection of the infinite in the face of the other. In Levinas’s ethics, the approach to the other is made without expectations and is made without reservation. In Buber’s ontology, engaging the other depends on reciprocation; it depends on a conversation between the self and the other that is engaging and filled with reservations and expectations.
In both cases, one is able to come face-to-face with the infinite through the voice of the other. One seeking the infinite through the ethics of proximity, the other through the I-Thou conversation, a conversation guided by mutual respect and understanding. The point is that coming to understand the infinite is accomplished in any number of ways. For me, my connection to the infinite is one that is born from the proximity of the self and the other. I find Buber’s approach to be conditional, demanding reciprocity and fraught with expectations for performance. Buber creates distance while Levinas provides the comfort of proximity.
My bout with prostate cancer may be effectively over. We won’t know for sure until mid-week, around Wednesday, when the pathology report is due. But my commitment to fighting this disease is just beginning. If things go as my urologist thinks they will, I will be a survivor. I found myself doing those things that mirror the absolute other, the infinity from which we all came and will all return some day, as represented in the face-to-face contact with the other.