More than all the eloquent phrases and the snippets of wisdom that marked President Obama’s inaugural address, I remain in the thrall of words he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial just two days earlier: “[I]f we could just recognize ourselves in one another… maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process.”
Obama was explicitly thinking, as he actually said, about “Democrats, Republicans and independents; Latino, Asian and Native American; black and white, gay and straight, disabled and not.” And there, the divides and the misunderstandings are wide and plentiful — as witness the corners of vitriolic hatred that remain in America, or the California vote on Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage, or the arguments over immigration and so forth. Some of all that will be healed by the departure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as also by the determination of our new president to reach across our political divides. Much will be more unyielding. The formula that Obama now urges upon us does not bridge every divide. But it does render them bearable.
“If we could just recognize ourselves in one another…” What do these words mean? They mean something quite different from loving each other as we love ourselves. What I take them to mean is that when we behold the Other, we ought not only see the differences between him/her and ourselves but also and quite as important, we ought recognize our sameness.
That is neither trivial advice nor is it easily made real. It is a call to empathy, a definition of empathy broader than the more familiar “ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other.” The extent of its challenge may be deduced from imagining what it might mean in the context of international conflict.
Let us, for example, imagine that Israelis and Palestinians were able to see their sameness as well as the differences that so blight their relationship. Suppose they were able, as some few of them already are, to listen to each other’s stories, listen without becoming immediately defensive, listen with respect for the authenticity with which they’re told, learn from them the fear and the victimhood that afflict both “them” and “us” and perhaps, thereby, narrow somewhat the gulf between them and us.
Here is what David Grossman, the great Israeli writer, had to say about this just the other day: “We must speak to them [the Palestinians] and begin to acknowledge that reality is not one hermetic story that we, and the Palestinians, too, have been telling ourselves for generations. Reality is not just the story we are locked into, a story made up, in no small measure, of fantasies, wishful thinking and nightmares.” And then: “We must speak, because what has happened in the Gaza Strip over the last few weeks sets up a mirror in which we in Israel see the reflection of our own face — a face that, if we were looking in from the outside or saw it on another people, would leave us aghast. We would see that our victory is not a genuine victory, and that the war in Gaza has not healed the spot that so badly needs a cure, but only further exposed the tragic and never-ending mistakes we have made in navigating our way.”
That’s the way it was, we are taught, when Jacob met Esau — Esau, his fraternal twin who looked nothing like him, from whom he’d stolen both birthright and blessing — on the morning after he’d wrestled with the angel. “Pray,” Jacob says, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then take this gift from my hand. For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God…” (Genesis 33:10). There’s a powerful thread in the midrash on that cryptic verse that holds that what Jacob was “seeing” in the face of his twin brother was his own face, the face of an Other also created in the image of God.
And that’s the way it was for the master of our own time, Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote that “the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning [entirely] within its own being-in-the-world.” When the Other is your neighbor, you cannot know yourself, you cannot speak of your identity as if it were a thing apart, self-contained.
Imagine that when at last Americans sit with the Iranians, both teams of negotiators will have just finished a week-long workshop on listening, on recognizing, will thereby not only better know the Other but also better know themselves.
That is the way it’s supposed to work. That’s apparently how Obama understands the world, and asks us to understand it.
I wonder, in the wave of warmth and high hopes that characterize the nation’s feeling toward President Obama, whether we are not, in some very real way, among his Others. Surely he derives strength from our embrace; surely his own identity owes much to his recognition of himself in us. But he wants us for more than that. He wants us to recognize ourselves in him. I think here, in particular, of words that came near the end of the inaugural address: “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
We ask much from our president, very much. Let us not forget that he asks for much from us.