“Otherness” is the paramount issue for our day. ‘Otherness” (and it is usually enclosed in quotes) refers to the awareness and experience that “beyond the small bright circle of our consciousness lies the dark” (Conrad Aiken) and that beyond that darkness lies the object world. The task is to venture into that darkness, struggle through it, and find the “light” that lies beyond. This “light” represents our escape from the Platonic shadow world and allows us to see things, including people, as they are and not merely as a means to fulfill our needs. They are “other” than we are. Their wishes, their desires, their fancies, their intents will be different from ours in very critical ways. And we don’t have to like them, we don’t have to even put up with them, we can always just leave them alone and try to avoid them. And, yes, there are times when their “otherness” is of such a nature that our “respect” for them will not over rule a responsibility to call the cops! But we will still respect them, realizing that “there go I, but for the Grace of God.”
But venturing into this darkness of “otherness” is often scary as hell and somehow hell is very related to this spiritual adventure. But that is another story. This experience of “otherness” has been written of from ancient times though it was described in different words. For example, I think Jonathan Edwards famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is an example of the terror that is often encountered in this adventure. And too often the terror is so intense that a quick antidote is sought and one will do as Kierkegaard suggested and grab the nearest bit of flotsam and jetsam that the vortex provides. And these antidotes can play a role if they are merely used as a respite and are not glommed onto as a means of preventing any further spiritual growth; further spiritual growth will always entail imbibing more of this terror.
St. Augustine’s conversion also reflects this same subjective anguish. In his “Confessions” he declared, “At the very moment wherein I was to become other than I was, the nearer it approached me, the greater horror did it strike into me; yet it did not strike me back, nor turned me away, but held me in suspense.” He even used the term “other” and I liked his phraseology, becoming “other than I was” which reflected he knew this was a moment of transformation, rebirth, or salvation. And though this terror was great, yes this “God” appeared very angry, “it did not strike me back” but actually…if I might exercise my literary license here…”held me in its loving arms.”
And I love Aeschylus’ reference to the “awful grace of God.”. This Grace is perceived to be “awful” because our pretenses, our illusions, our vanities, our false gods are melting in the “judgment of God” which precedes are awareness of God’s infinite mercy and grace. It is not that God is awful, or even judgmental. It is merely that our ego clings so desperately to our fig leaves that having them dissolve so suddenly….and even if it is over the course of a lifetime it can still be conceived as “suddenly”…feels like we are “sinners in the hands of an angry (judgmental) God.”
Rilke in the Duino Elegies described this experience with otherness as a terrifying moment, declaring, “Beauty is only the first touch of terror we can still bear and it awes us so much because it so coolly disdains to destroy us.”
And then there is Emily! Ms. Dickinson certainly understood and embodied otherness and her brilliant poetry illustrates this so beautifully. I’m going to share one of her poems which is so terrifying, not merely because of the imagery, but because in this poem she does not conclude with the Grace that she acknowledges elsewhere in her work:
He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,
Prepares your brittle substance
For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow.
Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool—
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.