With Apologies to Emmanuel Levinas…Otherwise than Being
When faced with one’s own mortality, no matter whether this mortality is imminent or simply a close encounter, it is only natural to examine what life means and what contributions one may or may not have made to the world exterior to the self. My current bout with prostate cancer is a clear case of a close encounter with my own mortality and this encounter prompted me to explore just what it means to be able to draw breath, from where that ability originates and what contributions I made to the world that I inhabit as a sentient being. In fact, I have reached three basic conclusions:
- My being is defined by my being-in-the-world as I encounter other human beings and objects of the world around me.
- The so-called gift of life comes as a simple mathematical calculation, the probability of a single sperm uniting with a single ova during or shortly after coitus. A different sperm and I do not exist. The odds of my existence are astronomical, but here I am. To attribute my existence to a deity exercising control over everything is a waste of time unless that deity is, in fact, mathematical probability at work; a concept that leads one to understand the existential world I and you inhabit to be purposeless and absurd.
- As a teacher and scholar I have contributed a great deal to the world I inhabit. I am the co-author of a book on teaching writing, I published numerous articles, many of which have been cited by others as they extend the knowledge base about teaching and learning, I presented hundreds of scholarly papers at academic conferences and did so internationally, as a consultant I interacted with teachers and their students to expand their knowledge of teaching writing and, finally, I influenced many of my students to strive for excellence and many of those students are in contact with me to this very day.
In short, I am able to say that my life has made a difference in the world to which I am intimately connected by my very being-in-the-world. In ethical terms I stood (stand) ready to be responsible for the welfare of the other, to share my knowledge and skill with others, to stand ready to answer the call of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. This level of responsibility, while not perfect, is a contributor to the most important aspect of my own lived-experience, that of personal integrity.
In this sense, I am able to honestly report that I am grateful for my cancer. It provided an opportunity to explore, in practical terms, those things that I hold theoretically dear. In the final analysis, it helped me confirm the practicality of those ideas offered as without practical applications. I am even thinking about a book exploring practical aspects of Levinas’s fundamental ethical obligation.