I’ve finally found the strength to restore “All Actual Life is Encounter” as originally published on February 9th, after accidentally zapping its content; leaving the way clear for this sequel.
Some of my readers are also correspondents, exchanging emails over the years, and when I check how far these go back, I’m amazed how the time flies. It’s the same with these posts. What inspired them is fresh like yesterday, the clumsy words evoking a scene and a feeling, so vividly that I often want to do justice to the memory and improve them, for I’ve learned better expression over the years. At the same time, I fear destroying something in the process.
One of these correspondents consistently gets what I’m trying to say, despite the incoherence of my expression. She responded thus to “All Actual Life is Encounter”, before it got zapped:
Martin Buber is new to me, but I love him already for being “completely sparkling and illuminating”—as you claim he is. Will there possibly be more posts about this? I think I follow what you are saying. Somewhat. In a way. Maybe.
I had something surreal happen to me in Walmart this weekend that was all heart and pure joy. My husband didn’t realize how seriously sick I was with the flu and since I couldn’t express to him in words how I bad I felt, I let him drag me to the store with him. I needed to be on a gurney. Seriously.
Anyway, I was struggling, walking soooo slow. No cart to lean on, because he was pushing that. So I was standing in the bread aisle, leaning up against a pole, waiting for him to come back my way. Then everything became different, surreal. There was a mother with her little girl in the cart. People walking past me in both directions. And they were alive. Really alive. God I’ve never felt so happy. And I thought to myself, “I’m going so they can have their turn”. The joy was so real. Something was happening. And for the first time ever I was really smiling inside and seeing people in their true purest form. Moving briskly through my dimension in a cheery grand procession.
But then some lady stopped and asked if I was OK. And then without batting an eyelash everything went back to the way it was before.
Maybe that isn’t a good example of what you’re talking about—yet for a brief moment I was living with myself in true joy. I wasn’t my own enemy nor did I have any enemies. Enemy was the farthest thing from the equation. Maybe I really was about to go, and that was my true self. Whatever it was, it was real. I do know that.
I recognized in her words an instance of the very thing Buber calls I-You. The I sees the You, not an It, not a bunch of Its. Never mind philosophy, that is to say theory. It can only happen to a person, in space and time. “All actual life is encounter”. It is a different dimension of the ordinary.
My correspondent continued:
I might try to find that book by Martin Buber; but would rather hear you talk more about his philosophy in your own words and experiences.
Right, because when I take his words out of context they do sound like a philosophy. Yet they are more like the evidence of an eye-witness.
Her moment in Walmart evoked one of my own in June 2006 *, which I struggled to put in words soon after. It was one of those one-off or first-time experiences that you never forget. On its tenth anniversary I recalled the original experience, but the terms I’d used did not convey it clearly. I’d picked on the word “immortality” but its connotations were unsatisfactory: an abstract concept passed between speaker and listener, teacher and pupil, like a parcel in plain wrapper, with no knowledge of what lay inside. It wasn’t even the right word. Since the memory of that moment had not faded, it was possible to change the words until they felt right. *
C’s moment in Walmart was uncannily like mine near those traffic lights.
I obtained personal knowledge, the kind that changes you permanently. It is something you cannot get by any shortcuts. A teacher could not convey it without possessing it. A student could not learn it without being ready.
. . . What I meant to say was that in each one I saw something to celebrate in their very existence, something which transcended how they looked and moved, was unaffected by their lot in life, as lived day to day.
. . . I saw our true selves there, each of us, in one sweep of the eye, and it was like a joyful embrace, for we were one: a team of infinite beings. I knew of no way to share it, not through an exchange of glances, or any form of greeting. I knew this thing in that moment, but did they?
Buber says the same thing, in his words.
—What, then, does one know of the You?
—Only everything. For one no longer knows particulars.
* Both links are to rewritten versions. The original post as published three days after the event is still visible here.