I have to admit that for the first 20 years of my life, I learned little about communication, forming relationships, building community with others, or charity. Neither my school nor my family prepared me for the social aspects of cooperating with and helping others. I had to acquire these skills on my own in the school of life, later through counseling and spiritual guidance, and then through interactions with brothers and sisters. I’m still in the midst of this learning process even after all these decades. Four life lessons in particular stand out to me.
What is said is not what is meant
First of all, in order to learn how to understand and put into practice the basics of any type of communication as they are taken for granted nowadays in social occupations, the following holds true: the message that comes through to me in a conversation is not necessarily that which the other person really intended, and vice versa. Usually, I take away more from the conversation than just the other person’s actual words. Therefore, it is important to learn how to listen, to ask clarifying questions, and to avoid just assuming that we completely understand each other. Tolerating different opinions and tackling conflicts productively are part of these basics as well. I have been digesting this life lesson for more than 35 years.
It or you?
In the 1980s, I came across the dialogue principle of Martin Buber (1954), which began a second life lesson. Specifically, every relationship creates its own I: I can treat the other person as an it, as an object; or as a counterpart, as a you. Accordingly, I will experience myself as another: there is the I of it-and-I, and there is the I of you-and-I, as Buber said. However, the question remains, is it under my control whether I speak of you or it? I can at least prepare myself to take control in as far as I learn to refuse to treat the other according to my hastily drawn picture of him. Rather, I begin slowly and carefully, with respect, to discover aspects about the other person bit by bit. I can add to this even further by abstaining from putting on appearances and from being compelled to present certain images of myself. The renunciation of images and appearances makes room for the you-and-I, which is easier said than done, but each of encounter of this type lets love come to life and grow.
Answer the cry of desperation
At the end of the 1990s, my attention was drawn to the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1989) from France. A third life lesson began. Lévinas spoke of a face, of a nakedness, which the other reveals rather clumsily to me mostly in times of need. This countenance is principally characterized by two cries from the heart: “Please don’t kill me!” and “Please don’t leave me alone to die!” To hear these cries, to answer them, to become involved, and to give of myself creates a new I, an ethical identity: someone is calling me. I alone can answer.
In regards to the second lesson, I am still learning to open myself up to encounters, not to shield myself, and to make myself vulnerable; these apply to this third lesson as well, but it additionally entails subordinating my I.
That sounds radical: The fear of hurting someone else takes the place of the fear of being hurt!
As a Christian, this thought is not foreign to me. Jesus Himself says that we are to lose our life for His sake and for our neighbor’s sake, and only then can we gain our own life. And Jesus Himself assures us again and again that we are His beloved, which we need as a support to be able to love in that way at all.
Love needs a third party
About 10 years ago I had the privilege of discovering a fourth life lesson: Perfect love needs a third party, a provocative proposition made by the Christian philosopher of religion Jörg Splett (1990). He postulated that two alone are not adequate; love becomes perfect or complete only when each of them also loves the people that the other loves, and helps his or her neighbor to love this third party as well. Love in a marriage that includes children is an example of this love. For Splett, however, it concerns above all the other’s relationship to God: I ask God on behalf of my partner, and I help that person in his or her relationship with God, and he or she aspires to do the same for me. This is how the love triad is formed.
Splett made reference to Richard of Saint Victor (12th Century/1980), who wrote: “When a person bestows love on another, when a lonely soul loves another lonely soul, then love is present, it is true, but co-love is still missing. When two people like each other at the same time, give each other their hearts in deep yearning and the resulting stream of love flows both directions between them, and in opposite directions aimed at different things, then is love there on both sides, but co-love still is missing. One can speak of co-love only when a third individual is loved harmoniously by two people, is lovingly surrounded in community, and the affinity of both wells up as one, undifferentiated, in the flame of love for the third person.”
Richard of Saint Victor, though, developed this starting point from his teachings on the Trinity: God is within Himself this triad of love, into which He desires to bring us as His children. To put it radically in my own words based upon this idea: A “One-God” alone can’t be love, and a two-fold God can’t be love; only a 3-fold God is love, perfect love.
What these lessons have meant for my journey
I’m beginning to understand that God’s Agape love, brotherly love, love for neighbors, as well as love for strangers and for enemies feeds not only off of the experience of God’s love for me in Jesus Christ. Even though God’s love illustrates the greatest offering of all times, all of these human life lessons belong right there with it: taking interest in others, meeting another without prejudices, learning to truly listen, opening ourselves to criticism, not protecting ourselves with our own images, allowing someone else’s need to engage us, practicing gentleness and carefulness in interaction with others and demonstrating complete commitment to another’s life, including his or her relationships with God and other people. In other words, without all of these other life lessons, an enduring Agape love is simply not possible.
All of these experiences are building blocks of neighborly love, supported by God’s love for me, which remains true even when I go astray time after time and never reach the goal.
What will be the fifth life lesson?
Buber, M. (1954). Die Schriften über das Dialogische. Prinzip, Heidelberg.
Levinas, E. (1989). Humanismus des anderen Menschen. Meiner, Hamburg.
Splett, J. (1990). Leben als Mit-Sein. Vom trinitarisch Menschlichen, Knecht: Frankfurt/M.
Von Sankt-Viktor, R. (1980): Die Dreieinigkeit. Übertragung und Anmerkungen von Hans Urs von Balthasar. (Christliche Meister Bd. 4) Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag.
Psychologist/Chairman & Vice President of IGNIS ICPs
IGNIS Academy of Christian Psychology
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