Seeing others for who they really are

Last week Rose Castle Foundation was privileged to mark Holocaust Memorial for a BBC Radio 4 programme, following which we received hundreds of messages, including from survivors of the Holocaust. It was a powerful reminder of the consequences of turning our back on a people group – of de-humanising other human beings such that we can contemplate, and even justify, their eradication. Whilst many of us cannot imagine being in such traumatic circumstances, it is sobering to realise how many ordinary people of faith were swept up by its orbit, whether as victims or as perpetrators.

What is it that can so dramatically turn us from people of love to people of hate? Often, it is not a single dramatic event, but a slow, steady drift from ignoring or blanking another, to words or acts of violence towards them? We have watched it played out on the highest political stages, whether Europe and Britain’s row over vaccination supply, or the lead up to President Biden’s inauguration, or among senior politicians within our own houses of parliament. It is vital to air our disagreements over public policy when the common good is ultimately being pursued, but when language deteriorates to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ war of words, we set ourselves on a deteriorating and potentially dangerous spiral. We stop seeing the other as fellow human beings, and instead build our own image of them, demonising them in the process.

Well known French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, described the ethical responsibility of a face-to-face encounter.[1] Seeing and hearing the other person for who they really are, not for who we think they are.[1]  That encounter does not assume we are the same – we might be very different. Nor does it assume we are right and they are wrong – for we might be mistaken. Levinas prioritises the other person, as one made in the image of God, just as we are. He describes their potential vulnerability, as a stranger, an orphan, a widow.

In many ways his work is similar to another philosopher, Martin Buber, who described our encounters with others as “I-Thou” rather than “I-It”.[1] In other words, those whom we encounter are themselves agents of thought, emotion and action, shaped by their experience of life (good and bad), about which we may have little understanding. Buber speaks to a mutual responsibility in our encounter, in which we first want to see and hear the other for who they are, before making our own assumptions. And for whom we seek the best, even if, at times, that requires discipline and correction rather than unhealthy agreement.

Any human encounter is ultimately a relationship (however fleeting) between two or more people, formed by words as well as action. The poet, Elizabeth Alexander, who spoke at President Obama’s inauguration, reminds us that “we encounter each other in words…..words to consider, reconsider.”[2] Our words shape our relationships, for better and worse. When we no longer recognise the other as a fellow human being, we undermine or even eradicate relationship. We treat them as “it” instead of “Thou”.

We do this in subtle ways, day by day, and often with those we think we know so well. Have you ever wondered if your image or understanding of that person is one you have created yourself? If perhaps they are your “it” rather than a “thou” in their own right, albeit with weaknesses and strengths? Perhaps it is time to pause, to listen, to see them in a new light. To ask what it is really like to be them? It might be surprising to discover someone we have been missing all this time.


PRAISE SONG FOR THE DAY by Elizabeth Alexander[3]

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need
. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.


[1] Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity (1985) and other writings

[1] Martin Buber, I and Thou. English translations include the 2000 edition translated by Ronald Gregor Smith

[2] See her poem below, recited at President Obama’s inauguration

[3] Elizabeth Alexander, Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010

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