An Encounter with the Other
In 2018, in the midst of my PhD coursework, I wrote this reflection. I recently revisited it and found it interesting to read during a time when many of us are in the process of coming out of pandemic isolation and beginning to see other people again on a regular basis. So, I post it here in the hope that you will also find it interesting and perhaps give you a moment to reflect.
I’m reading about phenomenology and thinking about our ability to encounter the Other. How the Other breaks and remakes us, saturates and exceeds us. At least I was. On my way to get a sugar-filled snack to fuel my continued reading, I encountered an older woman standing inside the door of the building where I spend most of my scholarly time. I say “encountered,” but it is true that I encountered her, at least initially, only in the most reductive sense of that word. I noticed a person, ducked my eyes, softly said hello, and moved to escape into the room that contains the vending machines. More than anything, her presence made me uncomfortable; I was afraid that I may need to interact with someone and uncomfortable that someone was present to silently judge my dietary choices. However, as I fled, she asked if I could help her. I turned and hesitantly said that I may be able to—in truth at this moment I was full of fear. Afraid that she would ask me for some time-consuming help that I would feel obligated to give, afraid that I would be unable to provide help and thus be shown to be inadequate, afraid that my scholarly time would be stolen from me by a stranger. I don’t know if she sensed my hesitancy and my fear, regardless she asked me to help her put on her coat. This is a simple request—one that would not take too much time to complete, so in that sense I was relieved. However, I soon realized that the help she requested would require me to hold her possessions, and perhaps touch her, and my fear returned. Nevertheless, I took the coat she was holding and held it for her in such a way that she relatively easily was able to put it on her left arm. My problem arose when I realized that she would be unable to get her right arm into the coat without my help, without me physically holding her arm and guiding it into the second coat sleeve. After coming to this realization, I hesitated for several seconds. I did not wish to touch her—not because I found her repulsive but because it has been ingrained in me that I ought not touch other humans except in very specific circumstances. And even in those circumstances I often feel uncomfortable. Yet, in this situation I was forced—by the pressure I felt to help and to not stand there in the doorway looking foolish—to reach out and come into contact with another human’s body. I quickly guided her arm into the sleeve and then handed her the purse she had dropped while putting on her coat. She then thanked me and went on her way. The whole encounter lasted less than thirty seconds, yet I have been unable to put it out of my mind. Because at this point I believe the word “encounter” is an accurate descriptor. I did encounter another human. Another human who was willingly vulnerable. Whose body made it necessary to rely on others. Who reached out for and accepted the assistance of a stranger. What strikes me perhaps more than anything is that this woman did not seem ashamed of her need for help. She was not apologetic in her request. She seemingly has come to accept that she relies on others in order to accomplish certain tasks that others consider mundane. My sense is that her encounter with me is not memorable for her, because it is normal for her to ask for help. Yet, my encounter with her has arrested my attention, specifically because a request for help is so abnormal. So freely admitting one’s need is foreign to me. Though I theoretically agree that I am in near-constant reliance on others, I functionally deny this truth as often as possible, even among those with whom I am intimately acquainted. I don’t know how to embrace the truth of neediness and fragility embodied by this woman that I encountered, but I do know that she bodily demonstrated a profound theological truth to me while I was in the midst of grappling with that truth theoretically. God, I pray that I live into my weakness and dependence, not so that suffering and brokenness are reified, but in a way that leads me to participate in community. Amen.