By Wayne Allensworth
In his magisterial books The Master and His Emissary and the two volume The Matter with Things, the brilliant polymath Iain McGilchrist argues for a world that comes into being via an interactive process between embodied consciousness and the Other—what’s out there, or, as the case may be, others, other people. He believes that relationships precede the relata. I’ll be writing more about his hemisphere theory of human cognition — and its implications — in future articles. My own ideas about the way that human personality develops have been influenced by his writing. In No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre had one character say that “Hell is other people.” “Hell” because of the judgements people make about you. But I think that post-modern life shows us that for all the problems we encounter in our relations with others, Hell is the absence of other people.
It was a cool night in wintertime. It wasn’t yet Christmas. I have no memory of any lights or decorations around the neighborhood. I was alone that evening, eating dinner at the kitchen table, when I looked up and there was a face in the window. After being startled by the presence of my uninvited dinner guest, I focused in on the face of a boy of perhaps 8 or 10 years, with blonde hair, and a slight grin. And something told me I had seen that face before.
I got up from the table and opened the back door. The boy was dressed in shorts and barefoot, not exactly prepared for a jaunt around the neighborhood on a winter night. I think I asked what was up, and he ran right past me into the kitchen. I yelled “Hey” at him and he dashed through the living room and up the stairs. I followed, flustered, surprised and wondering what was wrong with this kid. Something was wrong.
I chased him around the second floor before cornering him in an upstairs bedroom. I grabbed him by the arm—I told myself to be careful as his arms were so thin—and dragged him downstairs. He seemed to be having a great time, that little grin never leaving his face, and he showed not the slightest sign of fear.
Back in the kitchen, I asked him where he lived, as I knew I had seen him around, but he didn’t say a word. His eyes had a quizzical look about them, but there was no answer to me and there were no questions, either. I opened the door and dragged him around to the back gate, all the time asking him where he lived and knowing that something was wrong with him. We went out the gate and I told him to show me his house. But he never spoke a word or reacted to anything I said.
I started dragging him across the yard, and that’s when he got away from me and ran across the street. I saw him open the door of the house across from mine. He went inside. I followed. My neighbors were chasing the kid up their stairs. The lady of the house was calling the police, as I recall, and her husband and son helped me corner the kid and drag him downstairs. I stepped outside and saw a man trotting down the street toward us and I waved at him and shouted that if he was looking for a boy, we had him. I recognized the man. He lived down at the end of the street.
The police arrived and they knew exactly what was going on. The boy, let’s call him Gabriel, had gotten loose again. The boy’s father spoke calmly and softly to Gabriel, and the boy went to him. The father thanked us profusely and started back down the street.
Gabriel was autistic. And yes, I had seen him in my neighbor’s backyard when I was walking our dog. I saw him more often after that, or, rather, I noticed him more often. He never spoke, but that slight grin on his face was often there. One time, I walked by the neighbor’s house and the boy was on the roof of a backyard shed. I knocked on the door to let his folks know. His father and mother coaxed him down.
I still see Gabriel occasionally. Nowadays, his father takes him for strolls down the street sometimes, often together with his sister or one of his brothers, and I nod at him, but he only looks at me, and sometimes that grin shows just a little.
His parents spend a lot of time and effort taking care of Gabriel. They are decent people, though I have never gotten to know them very well. That’s how it goes these days. But in his way, Gabriel had done more to get people in the neighborhood to speak to one another than anyone else. Thanks, Gabriel.
I’ve often wondered what goes on in Gabriel’s head. What is he thinking? What does he see in us?
The personality that we can perceive in Gabriel — and there is one, in spite of how hard it is for him to communicate with us — is that which he has developed in his relationships with other people, attenuated as they might be. That’s not a statement on autism. It’s the way all of us are, which is why human relationships are more than just passing acquaintances. We become who we are in reciprocal relationships with others, with the world around us, and whatever good there is in us is expressed chiefly in our relationships, as is the bad, for that matter. In effect, our personalities are drawn out of us in reciprocal relationships. Developed as those relationships develop. There could be no “me” without “you.” Without other people, we can’t develop as stable personalities. It’s one reason postmodern America seems to be such an unhappy place — the atomization, the fragmentation of social relations, the technology bubbles that we build around us, and the distance that “neighbors” experience.
Gabriel’s parents love that boy and know him in a way that only they can. I’m sure that if you asked them if they would prefer that he had not been born, they would react with something like shock or dismay. However hard it has been on them, losing a child, or missing one, would leave a hole in their world. Because who they are and who their other children are is partly because of Gabriel.
At my mother’s funeral, I recalled that line from It’s a Wonderful Life, when Clarence the guardian angel explains to a despondent George Bailey, who had contemplated suicide, that if George had never lived, there would have been an awful hole in the world. Every man’s life touches so many others. And George had touched the lives of the people around him in a good way, though he had barely given his actions any thought. My mother was someone who touched the lives of many people in a very good way. It occurred to me that all of them, not just her children, were changed by knowing her. They had taken a step or steps that they would not have otherwise taken.
Each relationship for good or ill adds depth to our lives, another dimension to living, another avenue to escape life’s shallows.
After raising my own children and interacting with my grandchildren, an idea I’ve had for a long time seems more valid than ever. It goes like this: Marriage is the vehicle whereby society extends itself in time via the birth and nurturing and socialization of children. Fair enough. But having children changes a person. Another dimension is added to one’s personality. More depth, more depth than even friendship or other family relationships, as vitally important as they are, can give. A relationship with a child is friendship and filial attachment magnified. It’s responsibility and sacrifice on another level. And all of those things make us who we become in our life journey.
The urge to such relationships is as elemental as any other. The creative, reciprocal calling forth of personality could not take place without others, and at the foundation of that is childbirth, so that humanity is, and humanity goes on. And all the things that make life worthwhile can be. And it all started with God’s creative urge. God couldn’t be Himself without that creative act, and I think that God needs us as well, just as we need other people, other beings, an environment in which we can be. Perhaps we can think of the Incarnation as partly another stage or step in the creative development of the universe and of personality. Divinity interacting with humanity in an embodied personal relationship.
Our relationships make us. In childbirth, we share in the creation of a foundation for relationships. The act of reciprocal interaction on a basis of moral behavior is an act of love. As all positive meaningful relationships are. Without that, there wouldn’t simply be a hole in the world. Maybe there wouldn’t be any world at all.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.