To paraphrase Emmanuel Levinas, the evidence for ontology is the existence of all of us. The problem with making ontology primary is that it simply asks the wrong questions. If one, for example, wishes to make intentional actions the basis of ontology, for each intentional act there are an infinite number of unintentional acts that coincide with it. Say I wish to read a book, in the act of picking up the book (intentional) as the first step in reading, I displace dust surrounding the book (unintentional), crinkle the elbow of my shirt causing additional wear on the fibers woven into the sleeve at the elbow (unintentional), displace a few skin cells that fall as dust (unintentional), cause a bit of wear on the edges of the book that scrape across the shelf (unintentional), and so on. The very idea that in accomplishing an intentional act, we leave unintended traces behind so as to alter the space in which we are interactive beings-in-the-world because we are also changing that very world in which we are beings-in-the-world. It is not enough to be intentional while interacting with the objective world around us if that world is changed even ever so slightly by our intentional actions.
So what does all this have to do with me and my cancer? After all, I am sitting here writing about me and my cancer because, especially as I recover from major surgery, there is little else for me to do but sit, read, think and write. So here goes a brief explanation.
If ontology is not primary, what then is? In Levinas’s world, ontology takes a back seat to ethics. Yet, an ontological announcement is the critical starting point of all of ethical behavior. That announcement, “Here I Am!” is made by the self to the other (person) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. It is a bold statement, allowing for the other to respond or not, something that is in the sole control of the other and not the self. Any response from the other is a call to action in which the self becomes available for the other, becomes responsible for the other, by embracing the differences presented by the other to the self. In short, as an aware self, my obligation is to make myself present, wait for a response that may never come, but when it does I am obligated to act for the benefit of the other even to the extent that I may not be benefited by my actions.
I may, for example, see another person drowning. If I am truly present for the benefit of the other, the call to save the person drowning is absolute and I must act even if, in the process of saving the drowning person I drown myself. Now, most ethical choices are not so extreme as to cause one’s loss of one’s own life, but, Levinas’s point is that the obligation extends beyond the self encompassing the selfless.
As I now am facing the objective world as a likely survivor of prostate cancer, I am clearly present in a way I never thought possible prior to this diagnosis. I still do not know if I am completely clear of disease; this will be answered either Wednesday or Thursday. What I do know, however, is that the original diagnosis provided me with a powerful lens with which to look at the objective world. One of the benefits of hearing a diagnosis of cancer is the ability to make the ethical choice to look at the objective world selflessly. Whether or not I am currently cancer free doesn’t much change that point of view. I am now present, Here I Am! I have the ability to reach out in a new and positive way to other prostate cancer, or any cancer patient if, and only if, they join me in this conversation. I have created the proximate space, the invitation to join me in working toward something positive, not necessarily a positive outcome of the disease, rather a lived experience that is both ethical and positive. The ontological announcement provides the pathway to an ethical life and for that I am most grateful.