While a human being’s life certainly involves an extensive range of essential, defining characteristics, it seems to me that, without oversimplifying such a complex question, it is most significantly characterized by two processes that are distinct yet inseparable—the search for personal identity and the development of meaningful relationships with others.
Ultimately, in our existence as human beings we are centrally challenged to figure out who we are and how to relate to one another, how to live with ourselves and how to live with other people. We cannot get completely beyond or outside of ourselves, and although it is possible for an exceptional few individuals to completely avoid at least direct contact with other people, the vast majority of us necessarily interact with others on a fairly constant basis. The human condition is therefore a source of joy and fulfillment, assuming an optimistic perspective, or a source of misery and bitter dissatisfaction, assuming a cynical perspective. Either way, we are seemingly united or stuck with ourselves and united or stuck with one another.
This is, of course, a very prominent existential theme and the Self-Other relation is a core construct within the existentialist framework and tradition (Buber, 1996; Heidegger, 1993; Maslow, 1993; May, 1969; Sartre, 1978; Tillich, 2000). It has been researched, explored, and articulated by many theorists who I’m sure have provided more penetrating insight than I can offer, and which I don’t intend to redundantly and needlessly recycle here. However, I do believe that we are always in genuine need of a reminder concerning the dynamic and dialectical nature of the relationship between the individual self and the Other. If we acknowledge that this is indeed its essential nature, which I think we must do, as academic research and analysis, intellectual reflection, and concrete experience apparently indicate, we do affirm the Self-Other relation as a dynamic, dialectical, and polar movement between distinct but non-static entities that together constitute a unified pattern or interactive field, what has been termed the “inter-subjective field.” The most crucial emphasis here, for me, is not a purely intellectual or academic understanding of this as a theoretical construct, which, if we’re really honest, we must admit is often an easy and convenient escape from the much more difficult reality of actually living it out in our direct experience of ourselves and others. The former, by comparison, doesn’t ultimately matter and should not consume much of our time and energy; the latter, I believe, is of absolute importance and demands our full attention and concern.
The critical issue, practically, is the phenomenological balancing between the two poles of individual and interpersonal identity within the Self-Other continuum. How do I, as an individual person, effectively balance my energy between the complementary, but often perceived as conflicting, extremes of my personal identity and my identity in relation to others, or the identity of the relationships involving myself and others?
In our actual experience, we do, in fact, perceive concerns with Self and Other as diametrically opposed and locked in a state of insoluble conflict; we are pulled toward an extreme focus on Self or we are driven toward an extreme emphasis on our relationships with other people. However, I would suggest that this merely represents the surface layer of the Self-Other dynamic, which we too often accept as the only way that it can be experienced. The deeper dimension that we must access reveals a condition of creative tension between these extremes, a constructive and growth-producing conflict that integrates the energy toward Self and Others into a holistic unity.
A legitimate and vital critique of existentialism regarding the Self-Other relation points out that while the “Other” aspect has been centrally and intentionally acknowledged by existentialist writers, historically, a much greater focus has been placed on the “Self” aspect. Many seminal figures in the existentialist tradition have emphatically valued the individual self over the importance of human relationships, perhaps most notably Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. And as a result, the value of the “Other” pole within the dialectic has been significantly negated.
A greater balance must be restored to the Self-Other dialectic within the existentialist framework. Specifically, we need to counter the over-emphasis on the individual self with a greater emphasis on the relationship between individual selves, and recognize their mutual interdependence, the crucial fact that one cannot exist without the other. The individual self can only be fully actualized within the context of a relationship to other selves, and a human relationship can only be fully actualized on the basis of actualized individual selves. Because of us, I am; because of you and me, we are.
This is a core thought-child for me, but these present reflections are primarily grounded in an increasing awareness during this year of how empty, lonely, and isolated I have become within the past few years of my life. Due to various life circumstances, I had become internally disconnected and relationally impoverished. Working, raising two young children, and daily routines/structure had severely restricted the experiential range of my intra/interpersonal life. I was too busy to attend to my own individual needs or to the need for relationships outside of my immediate family. I realized that I was isolated from myself and from others, living in a world of strangers. I was becoming a stranger to myself and others were strangers to me.
However, within this past year, I have been making significant attempts to grow through this experience, to reestablish my inner center/grounding and a wider range of meaningful relationships, and as a result, I have found healing—a healing that is saving me. I have discovered that caring for myself is re-energizing me to reach out toward others, and that developing nurturing relationships is re-energizing my individual fulfillment. I am re-learning the dialectical and polar nature of the Self-Other dynamic within the creative tension between myself and other people. I encourage and challenge you to grow toward greater balance within the Self-Other dialectic of your life.
Buber, M. (1996). I and thou. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Heidegger, M. (1993). Basic writings. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Maslow, A. H. (1993). The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Arkana.
May, R. (1969). Love and will. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Sartre, J. (1978). Being and nothingness: A phenomenological essay on ontology. New York, NY: Quokka.
Tillich, P. (2000). The courage to be. New Haven, CT: Yale Nota Bene.
— Scott Kiser