Monday, June 01, 2009
I've been thinking about the nature of humans a lot lately. Trying to whittle our basic, universal drives down to very tight biological and objective terms. Today, I'd like to talk about a concept I'm going to call "The Other." What makes us seek out a companion? A soulmate? What makes us form a personal, transcendent relationship with a God? Those are questions I'm going to tackle.
When you look at human development and what makes us thrive as a species, you find a strong communal nature. We're bound to our human surroundings. Our parents, our family, our neighborhood, our community. From these sources, we form our identity, we learn, we form a defined "culture." Insert a bit of geography, and you see these processes at work with stark contrasts. Alter that close association with different histories, different language, different dress, and different appearance, and we see the "us" come full circle by distinguishing itself from "them."
But is there something deeper than culture? Is there some more basic urge that lays the very foundations that culture is built upon? I think there is. It is an inborn itch so deep that nothing can ultimately smooth it away. Think about yourself alone. Think about yourself very alone. In your darkest moments of isolation, is there someone there with you?
It's an urge, isn't it? A hunger to have another hear you, support you, validate you, and share your life experiences. We understand "me" or "I" all too well. That other emptiness yearning to be filled is "The Other."
Think about relationships. Biologically, we need to reproduce. Most of us like the act required for procreation. In fact, we practice it often. But what does reproduction have to do with a life companion? Why do we want those deeper, almost mystical connections? Why reach out to a person? Why care? Why fight? Why keep coming back when the waters become foul? Because we have that mouth to feed within us. We want to reach out and grab someone to fill the shoes of the The Other. Unfortunately, the stakes are devastatingly high. People fail us. They violate us. They let us down. The Other spits out the usurper we've dropped into that emptiness, and the hunger begins again.
But here's a question. What might you do if there is no person willing (or desirable enough) to be The Other? What if you've been burned and the hunger wants something more predictable and safe? No problem. You can fill the space with a concept. A kind of imaginary Other who will care and share and lend a willing ear. This "Substitute Other" can be a fantasy. A wonderful imagined romance. (We writers are known to create such things.) The Substitute Other can be an ideal. It can be a spirit or a god. Substitute Others can give great comfort. Sometimes I envy the religious minded for that reason. How comforting must that be to always feel someone watching over you, offering you love and support? But in reality, that kind of safety tastes kind of bland, and most people still end up wanting more.
So, what is The Other within us? Maybe nothing more than an instinct. Just like babies are born to snuggle towards warmth, or move their mouths to a nipple. We are born with that simple, but potent yearning. I can see its strength. It binds us together and allows us to achieve more than we would alone. But I also see its dreadful side. The wanting, the not having, the conflicts, the betrayals, and the pain.
If you're in the grip of the dark side of The Other, maybe seeing its deep instinctual roots can help. If we're hungry and can't find food, it doesn't mean that we have been cheated out of all that is good and noble in life. We tighten our belts and get a snack later. If our Other has been stomped or starved and we are in pain, maybe it's not quite the big deal we think it is. It's programming and biology. Understanding urges doesn't make them go away, but it puts them in perspective. It puts more power and strength into our hands. Maybe once in a while we should look The Other in the face and say, "screw you." Maybe then we'd have the perspective to feel a little less insane.
(One final note. By "The Other," I'm referring to the drive, not what fills it. The Other doesn't have to be a single person or thing. In fact, I presume it never is. We pluck pieces of people and concepts to feed the hunger. I do believe, however, that in most cases we want a single person to fill the largest share of it, even if we trick ourselves into thinking that person will be everything to us. There are many ways, small and large, we want to be heard. I don't see many examples of a truly solitary life.)