“All actual life is encounter”

View across the Solent showing Fawley Oil Refinery, with Cadland House in front

We went to the Island for a long weekend with a couple of friends, staying at Mimosa Lodge, where I took a photo at dawn across the Solent from our bedroom window. Outside it was chilly and neither of us got to take photos, especially as we were acting as guides to our friends, to whom this was all new. They would see through their own eyes, and having both been in the Royal Navy, would understand maritime lore and seafaring generally, better than Karleen & I; though as they pointed out, they couldn’t answer every question, as their periods of enlistment, while decades ago, didn’t stretch back to the age of sail. I remained constantly aware of the Island of my childhood, following in footsteps of an adolescent Vincent, sixty years ago. It was an interesting exercise to try and see it through new eyes, as a tourist. I was also aware of feeling “under the weather”, spurred more by present esprit de corps than youthful memories.

Text in white: places viewed on our recent visit. Text in yellow and pink: places I lived or attended 1950-60, as mentioned in various posts. Click for an index of these and subsequent visits

We took them to Quarr Abbey on the first day, a Benedictine monastery rebuilt early in the twentieth century near its old ruins. Karleen & I have been twice, once bringing a friend bravely struggling against a devouring cancer. On the second day, we walked to Osborne House and back taking the guided tour of Victoria & Albert’s holiday home. It would have been silly to drive there, as the chain ferry is closed, & we’d have to take the long way round. We stopped off at pubs when thirst and hunger punctuated the days. I felt we were like shipmates on shore-leave. In the few quiet moments available, I found myself unable to sink into fathomless depths of introspection. I made myself scribble thoughts in the great leatherbound journal which I’d brought along in hopes, but it turned out merely factual, like a ship’s log.

I had a post in mind, provisionally titled “Escaping One’s Enemy”. It was inspired by coming across Psalm 124, and seeing it as a kind of answer to what’s going on in the world. I was moved by the song’s feeling and imagery; it seemed to touch a spot. Which led me to ask if I have an enemy at all, and leading on from that, what actually an enemy is? Surely a bringer of misfortune, real, threatened or imaginary. Perhaps old age is my enemy now, that and my unruly mind. I’ve lived 75 years, have started to feel past my prime. I was glad when we all decided to shorten our island trip by a half a day, taking an earlier ferry back to Southampton. I was even gladder not to be the one driving us home.

It was good to be embraced once more by simple routine, after a strenuous few days. And then a welcome package arrived: a much-read copy of I and Thou by Martin Buber, ordered from the States and not expected so soon.Then after a week I woke on Sunday morning in such pain I couldn’t get out of bed. Turns out to be an inflammation of the innards: the doctor says it should respond to antibiotics, and painkillers in the meantime*. I count my numerous blessings, learn to accept nursing care graciously, from the one who knows me best. Most hours I spend in bed, accompanied by vague dreams, obedient to this enforced punctuation in a narrative of which I can be no more than co-author.

I see that this illness need not be my enemy at all, but a You interacting with this I. I hesitate before quoting Buber—even Walter Kaufmann as his translator admits the difficulty of his prose, in any language. Here goes, anyhow, with a torn-out fragment:

—What, then, does one experience of the You?
—Nothing at all. For one does not experience it.
—What, then, does one
know of the You?
—Only everything. For one no longer knows particulars.

*

The You encounters me by grace—it cannot be found by seeking. But that I speak the basic word to it is a deed of my whole being, is my essential deed.

The You encounters me. But I enter into a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is election and electing, passive and active at once. An action of the whole being must approach passivity, for it does away with all partial actions and thus with any sense of action, which always depends on limited exertions.

The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.

All actual life is encounter. (Martin Buber, Ich Und Du, 1923)

And now I see that Jesus, speaking two thousand years ago, and Buber, identifying the “basic word” I-You, show us the efficacious thing, the only thing that can heal the rifts that we find within ourselves and our societies: “love your enemies”. Only by grace, but nothing is more sweet.


* The inflammation of the innards was subsequently diagnosed as a form of lymphoma. Several months of chemotherapy didn’t work well enough, according to Dr A, who has since prescribed Ibrutinib (alias Imbruvica) daily for the rest of my life. I’m waiting for a further scan to see if Dr A is better pleased with progress. Any threat of imminent demise has been pushed back indefinitely. I’m glad, I’ve got things to finish before I go.

Updated 14th November, ’17.

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5 thoughts on ““All actual life is encounter”

  1. a ‘semicolon’? … have been booked in for yet another colonoscopy. The previous one was four years ago. Nothing serious, as yet.
    Also forgot to write::: Cheers and Best Wishes
    (um, this ‘twittering” must be catching. Am forgetting the art, and skill, of of ‘longform’ writing … a wry ‘heh’).

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  2. No commiserations necessary. The experience was, actually, fascinating. Surrounded by rather attractive young nurses; until, while drifting off into the oblivion of anesthetic: the surgeon waved a tube in front of my face. Sheesh, think i, hope this bloke probes my oesophogas first …

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