On Listening, Paying Attention, Recognition and Loving Relationships

Thoughts on Recognition and Loving Relationships

Edward Hopper: Summer Evening

Recently, I pointed out an article that Peggy Noonan had published in The Wall Street Journal.  She noted that, “Barack Obama has a great thinking look.  I mean the look he gets on his face when he’s thinking, not the look he presents in debate, where they all control their faces knowing they may be in the reaction shot and fearing they’ll look shrewd and clever, as opposed to open and strong.  I mean the look he gets in an interview or conversation when he’s listening and not conscious of his expression.  It’s a very present look.  He seems more in the moment than handling the moment.  I’ve noticed this the past few months, since he entered the national stage.

While Noonan was talking about her observations within the context of a political perspective, for me her comments resonated with the more personal issue of developing a loving, mutually reciprocal relationship.  Noonan pointed out a capacity to listen, to hear the other, to pay attention to the other.  The process of paying real attention to the other involves having the experience with/of the other perceived as outside the self, as well as an experience with/of my subjective conceptualization or impression of the other.

But beyond attention, we have both a need for recognition by the other, as well as wishes to be able to recognize the other in return, to experience a cherished other and have a co-constructed personal involvement that is distinctively characterized by a sense of nourishing, mutual recognition.  However there is an inevitable tension between connection and separation, the self’s wish for absolute independence conflicts with the self’s need for recognition.  In trying to establish itself as an independent entity, the self must yet recognize the other as a subject like itself in order to be recognized by it.  This immediately compromises the self’s absoluteness and poses the problem that the other could be equally absolute and independent.

Each self wants to be recognized and yet to maintain its absolute identity: The self says, “I want to affect you, but I want nothing you do or say to affect me, I am who I am.”  In its encounter with the other, the self wishes to affirm its absolute independence, even though its need for the other and the other’s similar wish give the lie to it.

This confrontation with the other’s subjectivity and the limits of one’s self-assertion is a difficult one to mediate.  The need for recognition leads to a fundamental paradox; in the very moment of realizing our own independent will, we are dependent on another to recognize it.  At the very moment we come to understanding the meaning of I, myself, we are forced to see the limitations of that self.  At the moment when we understand that separate minds can share similar feelings, we begin to find out that these minds can also disagree.

The ideal resolution of the paradox of recognition is for it to continue as a constant tension between recognizing the other and asserting the self.  It is for this purpose that carrying on a co-constructed, mutually reciprocal loving relationship with another necessarily entails ongoing practice in the sustaining of contradiction.  The latter is an ability that is enhanced to the degree that we are willing to appreciate, preferably embrace, the uncertainty that is inherent to our involvement in everyday life, to the choices that we make and to what might possibly emerge from those choices.

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