Leafy says that welcoming the stranger might include welcoming the stranger in people we know well.
Other minds are our most accessible source of divine alterity, of the accessibly alien, but for this very reason our most intrusive source of dread.
The accessibly alien is a thin dark ring of potential-understanding separating the bright spark of understanding from the infinite expanse of blindness beyond understanding, which some people call “absurd”, others call “mystery”, and others call “nothing”.
As long as we discuss common objects, the things standing around us illuminated by our common understandings. we seem alike. We come from the same place, we want similar things, and we live together peacefully as neighbors.
But when we try to share what is nearest to us with our nearest neighbor the divine alterity shows. As distance diminishes, our innerness — the source of illumination that gives our knowledge meaning — burns with intolerable blinding intensity, and the light it radiates turns strange, hinting in a way that cannot be doubted how much deeper, wider, denser, inexhaustible and incomprehensible reality is, and how thin and partial even the most thorough knowledge is. Too much is exposed. Perplexity engulfs us, and anxiety floods in.
Our stomachs drop, our chests tighten and burn, acid rises in the backs of our throats. Our alarms go off, and the talk will be made to stop. Only the most trusting love and disciplined faith will pull us across the estrangement. This is what it takes to raise two divine sparks.
To many of us this dread seems a mortal threat. And we are right in a sense.
Transcendence is what gives all things authentic value, positive and negative.
Positively, when we value anything, and especially when we love someone, what we authentically value is precisely the reality beyond the “given”, that is, beyond what we think and what we immediately experience.
If we only love the idea of someone or if we only love the experience of being with someone, while rejecting whatever of them (or more accurately “whoever of them”) defies our will, surprises our comprehension, breaks our categorical schemas and evades our experience, we value only what is immanent to our selves: an inner refraction of self that has little to do with the real entity valued. To authentically value , to love, we must must want most of all precisely what is defiant, surprising, perplexing and hidden.
To want only what we can hope to possess is to lust; to be content with what we have is to merely like, and no amount or intensity of lusting or liking adds up to love. (To put it in Newspeak, love is not double-plus-like. Love is not the extreme point on the liking continuum, but something qualitatively and, in truth, infinitely different.)
Conversely, authentic negative value — authentic offense — is our natural and spontaneous response when another person interacts with us as if we are essentially no more than what we are to them. They reduce us without remainder to what they believe us to be, and to how they experience us. In doing this, they deny our transcendent reality. This is the universal essence of offense.
When a social order is roughly equal, it is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to oppress another with such treatment. A person can either shun the would-be oppressor, or make their reality felt by speaking out or refusing to comply with expectations. But in conditions of inequality, threat or dependence can compel a person to perform the part of the self a more powerful person imagines. This is where offense gives over to warranted hostility.
The fashionable conventional wisdom, which has been drilled into the heads of the young, gets it all backwards. Ask the average casually passionate progressivist what is wrong with racism or sexism you’ll get an answer to the effect of “racism and sexism produce or reinforce inequality and oppression.” But the truth of the matter is that inequality is bad because it allows people to get away with forcing other people to tolerate, if not actively self-suppress, self-deny and perform the role the powerful demand of them. And part of that performance is asserting the truth the powerful impose.
Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.
These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.
Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:
- Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
- Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
- Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)
If you have lived your life without a center, imagining other places that where you are, rehashing the past, fretting about the future, judging from from everyone else’s expectations and opinions but your own… absolutely, you must (re-)find your center, (re-)establish yourself in the now, learn (re-)learn to live in the threefold present.
It is a basic condition of spiritual life.
For those who have never had it, the experience of discovering I-here-now is miraculous. It is a miracle on the order of witnessing the genesis of the universe from nothingness. And the happiness and benevolence that floods in put one in a paradoxical state of gratitude toward a past to which one can never again choose.
Believing that a world-transfiguring rebirth is what religion is for is inevitable and nearly irresistible. It is self-evidently all-important, in a way that cannot, and indeed, should not, be doubted.
Despite its apparent self-evident universality, this kind of work is not the universal, eternal goal of all religious work.
It is hard to imagine from a perspective of needing centering that finding one’s center is not every person’s primary spiritual problem, and it is not the dominant problem of every epoch.
Some people, and some times, have precisely the opposite problem, living only in the present, as if the threefold present is all that exists. They live solely in the here-and-now, pursuing only what they perceive as important, viewing life only from their own crystal-clear perspective, heedless of the future, contemptuous of the past, and giving little thought to the myriad centers existing around their own centrality.
For people in this condition, finding the beyond — the reality of reality beyond the periphery of one’s own experience is the one thing most needful.
Due to an uncanny convergence of events, I’ve been meditating on this theme for a couple of weeks, and I’m going to speculate somewhat recklessly from what I think is a Jewish perspective.
Finding one’s center in the threefold present and learning to participate in life from this center — “I am here being” — corresponds to God as YHWH.
Learning to live from this center toward the myriad other centers (all of whom live from centers of their own) out into myriad overlapping peripheries corresponds to God as Elohim (whose name is plural).
Understanding that YHWH and Elohim is one, and dedicating one’s life with the entirety of one’s heart, soul and strength to living from this reality toward this reality, as a responsible citizen of God, embracing more and more through collaboration with my fellows — that’s the religious ideal that guides me.
I’ve learned to recognize significance in anxiety, in love, in anger — a significance which points to relationships to transcendent realities through which we have a relationship with transcendence per se, through understanding or wisdom. I am going to start looking for analogous (or anomalogous) significance in other experiences, responses and actions as well, especially ones related to beauty, splendor, duration, foundations and sovereignty.
If we separate, seclude and protect ourselves from the harsh Otherness of the world for awhile; if we quiet ourselves down and refuse to scatter our attention and diffuse our efforts; if we concentrate our awareness and go deep enough into ourselves to discover what is there; blissful benevolence toward All may arise in our heart and overwhelm us.
We call this Love.
But isn’t love the instinct that drives us beyond ourselves toward a particular, individual other? Isn’t it the will to emerge from seclusion and safety to risk all, and if necessary to suffer or sacrifice? Isn’t it the desire to overcome our inwardness by joining our selves to a beloved other in togetherness?
These loves are so different in their trajectories and conditions it is hard to fathom how they can both be designated by one word. In other languages, such as Greek, they go by different names. Yet, there is reality expressed in marrying them under the shared name, love — as long as one doesn’t dominate or displace the other…
Without art, design is as sterile as selfless love.