This past summer at Chautauqua, where I’m spending most of July and August, I heard a speaker ask, “When was the last time you looked into a person rather than at him or her.” It was part of a Barbara Lundblad’s sermon on how to strengthen one’s faith, somewhat in the spirit of “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” The answer to that question was, in the sermon’s terms, to love. And the first step along that path of love was: look into, rather than at, another person. The Jewish thinker Martin Buber characterized this as an I-Thou relationship, a way in which all human beings have a potentially sacred relationship with one another — in which a person is recognized, not as an object, but as a completion of one’s own personality and experience. Two people in a loving relationship create a reality that transcends either of their lives endured alone. Another, simpler way, of putting it would be: people are who they are only in relationship to other people. For Buber, we are the set of all our relationships with others, and nothing else — and it’s only through those relationships that you can get to God.
You know you are on the path toward this wisdom when you feel how exhaustive it can be to live in obedience to this kind of love. It makes you available to others in a way that’s inevitably taxing. Giving one’s heart to others isn’t just a metaphor; it’s almost a physiological observation. Caring for others is the start of a connection to something beyond you that’s more important than you alone. Life stops being solely about you, as you imagine yourself to be, and more about who you actually are, as it’s revealed to you in the way you treat other people. Which is to say, you can only recognize your own spiritual condition, as a person, by watching how you act toward others. What you see, in those interactions, is often at odds with the picture of yourself you keep in your head.
I had an experience once that reminded me of all this, and it continues to haunt me. I get regular check-ups with my oncologist to make sure there’s no recurrence of my prostate cancer. After the most recent exam, I stepped onto an elevator, occupied by one other person, a woman absorbed in her own thoughts. She looked up, and we smiled and said hello, and then she withdrew into her preoccupations. I noticed that she’d covered her head with a scarf. Opposite my own doctor’s office was an oncology infusion center–offering intravenous chemotherapy. As we rode the elevator down, I considered the possibilities: it was cold outside, so maybe she’d covered her head to stay warm. But it was obvious she could have lost her hair as a result of her treatments.
We reached the ground floor, and I headed out of the building to a meeting at New York Presbyterian, not as a patient but as a board member. We emerged from the building together, and I opened the door for her, so we reached the street at the same time. She looked right and left, and then she said, out of nowhere, “I wonder who would take me to lunch.” It wasn’t a question I thought I was supposed to answer, but now I regret that I didn’t. The subject changed, we said a few more trivial things, and I rushed off. I didn’t look back, so I have no idea whether or not someone met her. Her words stayed with me, and in all these months since that moment occurred, I’ve come to realize it was probably an invitation. She might not have had enough money for a good meal, or she could have been so isolated literally no one knew of her plight, or she simply wanted someone to talk to for an hour and thought I had a friendly face. One thing I’m sure of: she felt alone, as we all do much of the time, no matter how much companionship we have. One other thing I’m sure of: I failed to ask a question that might have helped her immeasurably. Would you like to have lunch with me? I would have missed my meeting, but so what. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure she would have accepted, and it might have made an enormous difference to her. All of this happened two years ago, and I still think about it. Especially when I hear sermons about how love makes you available to other people. I have a lot of opinions about whether or not I’m a good person, but when I pay attention to my own behavior, my own actions, I see how far I’ve come and how far I still have to go along the path. I strayed that day from the path I like to think I’m on, even though I didn’t really do anything wrong. I’ve sort of been on the lookout for that woman ever since, wishing for a second chance.