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Levinas Says Why

I’ve always felt the problem with others is they keep talking about themselves. It’s always what they need, what they want, what they think. Their opinion. There is far too little about me in what they say.

You might think I’m joking. I’m not. It’s what many of us truly think just under the surface and it hints we are not far from that three year old phase of shouting “Mine.” You know I’m speaking truth because you’ve thought the same thing: waiting for someone to stop talking so that you can voice what is important to you.

Emmanuel Levinas was another 20th century philosopher who knew something about finding people interesting. He penned his first book while in captivity in a Nazi prison camp. His imprisonment proved valuable in forming a set of thoughts that went a very different direction from what others were thinking. Levinas was concerned with what happens when we encounter the “Other.”

Levinas understood that the Other was outside of ourselves. Painfully obvious? Maybe not. We humans have this tendency to force every encounter through our grid of experience, our intent and, frankly, our ego. We too often reduce others to something that looks very much like us. So while we hear the person beside us talking, we may pick up only on the words they say that affect us and miss the words that don’t affect us. We may routinely miss the words that oppose our intent along with the ones that describe the passion of this other person. Anyone with an old married couple in their lives has had first-hand experience with the practice of selective hearing.

“Wait,” you may say. “I’m a people person. I love being with others. Surely I have no natural aversion to others?” But Levinas pointed well beyond personality concepts like introversion/extroversion. He pointed beyond the contexts that inform our relationships: how we respond differently if the person before me is a subordinate or a boss, someone from the executive suite or a lowly clerk who can (should?) wait while I finish my dinner before I deign to speak with him. You can perhaps see the problem: how we interact, how we even think of the person before us—whether we even see the person before us—all is rooted in our context. It is rooted in how we perceive ourselves in culture, how we understand our position and our role. Standing is a very encultured episode.

Levinas invites us to strip away these contexts and come face to face with another. You’ve already had encounters like this, where context has been entirely scrubbed clean. Maybe you were at a party and met someone who later you found out was “Someone.” But during your chat you treated him or her like any other schlep.

How we deal with others, what we expect from our interactions, how often we assume others thinks like us and/or read that into our interactions—all these instinctual reactions limit our listentalk. Maybe they even derail our listentalk.

Listentalk means embracing the notion that others around us have much to contribute. And possibly that others are integral in helping us become the humans we were want to be. Levinas also awakens the very faint hunger in all of us to hear from The Other—God. And listening to God is a crucial piece of successful listentalk.


Written by kirkistan

March 11, 2011 at 8:26 am

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