There really is only one way of meeting another person: directly. All prejudice, all assumptions , all standing back from that person must be laid to one side.
I think I always knew that. Certainly when I first encountered Martin Buber’s Ich und Du it did not come as any kind of surprise or revelation, but rather as a more elegant expression of what I already knew; a sophisticated working-out of my daily assumption.
I was reminded of what a great and astonishing work it was when I ran full tilt into some numbing prejudice the other day. So for the record: the only way to enter into any encounter at all is to seek to meet directly with the person before one. Each person is unique, valuable, and the only way you will ever know them (or know anything about them) is to stand quietly before them, and to seek to meet them intimately, openly and without reservation. Keeping back information about oneself is necessary, but one can never keep back the self. One should always be open as an equal to the person who is there. This is the quality I call ‘simplicity’, which is always about relationship. It does not mean reckless self-giving, but it does mean honesty, in the sense that what they do meet of you must be all you. The truth, and nothing but the truth, though it does not need to be the whole truth. Yes, this is a bit of a tight-rope walk. Better, it is somewhat like a came of cards, where what you hold in your hand must be hidden, but what you put on the table must be the cards you acquired according to the rules of the game.
The opposite kills. The opposite states that before I meet somebody I know what their worth is. That worth is determined by their being as close to my tribe as possible. They must share my ethnicity, and they must hold my assumptions. There is one correct code of behaviour and one correct set of cultural assumptions, and they are mine. The other, who should be ‘du’ or ‘thou’ is judged to be wrong from the start. They are not ‘thou’, the equal of ‘I’ but a mere object of judgement. This means that ‘I’ can never, ever actually meet the person, only judge them to be right or wrong. There can never be a relationship, never a meeting.
This is why my father, difficult man as he was, was utterly right to argue (passionately and to the detriment of every Sunday lunch, and in the teeth of opposition from my delightful but racist grandmother) that there is no superior race, no better culture. There are simply people. And failing to acknowledge this does not just impoverish ‘du’, the person one meets. It bankrupts ‘I’ – for that ‘I’ has already judged most of those who are met as non-equals, and really as non-people.