I am riding the subway in New York, enjoying the loud peace of the E train to Queens. All around me, people read their kindles, listen to their iPods, or close their eyes. In my hands I hold a spiritual book. The book draws all my attention; I barely notice the woman seated beside me.
Until she speaks — at which time I realize she is actually a young man. I have been so absorbed in my reading that I have ignored everyone around me.
“What’s the name of that book?” he asks. “I’ve been reading it over your shoulder.”
Gutsy move on his part, I think, to disclose that you’ve been poking around in a stranger’s business.
“It’s called Breathing Under Water; it’s by Richard Rohr. He’s a Catholic priest, but he draws on many different spiritual traditions.”
“Well, I’m not officially any religion,” he says. “I mean, officially I’m a Christian. But I haven’t found a church that’s right for me.”
We talk about how important it is to know yourself so you can assess a theology, rather than accept ideas blindly.
He asks about my faith tradition. Then he says, “I’m from the West Indies. My family practices a lot of rituals, but they aren’t connected with any official religion.”
We talk about the power of ritual.
“If I give you this book,” I ask, “will you read it?”
“Yes,” he says, “Yes, I will.”
The train pulls into my station, I hand him the book, and wave goodbye.
I don’t believe I asked his name; he did not ask mine. He has no idea that I work as a clergy person.
Elated, I walk the mile to my late Mom’s empty house. When I was a young adult, encounters like this always set me soaring. Back then, they were rare. Now almost all my encounters are like this. It’s what I do for my living; actually, it’s my work in the world.
I think I need to do more of it.
It’s no secret; I’m not in my happy place right now. Some mornings, I feel I’ve stepped outside of myself. As if all my projects have piled up in the centre of the room, and I stare at them from a corner, wondering if they are really mine.
In my self, I recognize a bit of the philosopher Martin Heidegger – a bit, that is, of what might have driven him as he wrote Being and Time. The open possibilities of life, the enormity of the abyss of meaning that we glimpse in times of stress, the unpredictability of death — all of these, he wrote, undergird our days with a quiet hum of anxiety. So we fill our time with projects. Projects give us something to do, loading up our lives with small meanings; enough, hopefully, to drown out the hum of anxiety. Ultimately, however, they cannot erase it. Each of us must learn to cope, a human being facing Being Itself.
For me, right now, no projects are drowning out the hum.
Two days later, on Wednesday:
The express bus from the Bronx drops me off a block from the subway. I am just returning from a visit with my 100-year-old aunt at the Atria assisted living center. As I cross the street, I notice an elderly man asking for directions. Two people answer his question, kindly and carefully pointing him in the right direction. But for some reason, I’m not satisfied, so I wait outside the subway entrance. Sure enough, he walks slowly and pauses uncertainly. So, I approach him. “I heard you asking for directions. I haven’t been to this particular station before, but maybe we can figure it out together.”
We ride the escalator, share my fare card, and read the signs out loud to one another. When the train comes, we sit together. He explains that he has just moved into assisted living — have I heard of such a concept? He has just come from an author talk at Barnes and Noble. He urges me to exercise my mind, and asks me math questions. He used to be a musician, an engineer, and a stockbroker. He asks me to guess his age and then reveals that he is ninety-three. I offer to get off at his station and walk him to the bus stop. But there’s no need, as he is having dinner at a nearby diner, where he tips the waiter before his meal.
About me, he knows only that I am married, on my way home from assisted living, and good at his math quiz. That’s fine with me; I am delighted to be a listener.
He does not ask my name, and he does not tell me his. He has no idea that I listen for a living.
I walk the mile to my late mother’s empty house.
And I recognize, in me, a bit of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. When we are lost in our own concerns, Levinas wrote, we really have no identity. We are stuck in a circle of self that goes nowhere, finds nothing, and fails to grow. We become someone only when we reach beyond ourselves, allowing ourselves to be confronted by the face of the Other — and to respond to it.
Levinas and Heidegger: two students of the same master teacher of the art of observing one’s own consciousness. Levinas insisted that Heidegger’s observations were dangerously false. Yet, this week, I see them both in my own consciousness. Both know the failure of meaning, the hum of dread. Heidegger covers his anxious loss of meaning with projects, recognizes when they fail, and retreats into himself. Levinas escapes his anxious loss of meaning by focusing on other people.
And I cope by going back and forth between Self and Other. All the while, I do two things both these philosophers loved: explore my consciousness, and try to find meaning in philosophy books.
I do live on Sophia Street, after all.
Images: Poster of subway riders by artist Sophie Blackall, doobybrain.com; Martin Heidegger & Emmanual Levinas collage, ucc.ie