Since late March we have been separated from those whom we love, our friends and even our business acquaintances. We stand two metres apart in our shopping queues. We see poignant, yet often painful, pictures on our televisions of grandparents with spread hands on panes of glass trying to ‘meet’ their grandchildren. On our daily walks out, we actively try to avoid those walking towards us; we step into the road and apologise, or cross over to avoid any kind of contact. In all these different forms of interaction, we are worried about our vulnerability when coming into contact with others. Stories on the news about continuing death rates from the virus running into the hundreds each day, does little to ease the nagging doubts.
In his book Creative Fidelity, first published in 1964, the French philosopher, drama critic and playwright, Gabriel Marcel, reflects on how, as human beings, we are in relation to others. Of course, Marcel was not writing during a global pandemic, but he was writing at a time when he saw an increasing tendency towards our human relationships being marked by a kind of utility, resulting in forms of what we might call distancing. In trying to counter such tendencies, he argues for relationships marked by openness to others, and which are signified by a certain exposure or vulnerability that he refers to as ‘porosity’ or ‘permeability’.
To encounter another, he writes, is to,
‘devote our attention to the act of hospitality…Hospitality is a gift of what is one’s own. i.e. of oneself’Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity (p. 28)
While we are rightly constrained from offering hospitality to each other in the way in which we commonly understand it (inviting people into our homes, sharing meals, and so on), Marcel is thinking more of a kind of hospitality to the other which he describes as disponibilité, commonly translated as ‘availability’. Being available – freely, emotionally, temporally – has still been possible to do.
As restrictions are eased, there is a risk that as we relate to each other, we will be warier, or in Marcel’s words, we will be ‘present, yet in a mode of absence’ (p. 33). What is clear, though, is that the possibilities for what Marcel calls our ‘communion’ with each other will be based on our shared experiences. As he writes:
‘What brings me closer to another being and really binds me to him [sic]… Is the thought that he has passed to the same difficulties as I have, that he has undergone the same dangers… It is only in these terms that a meaningful content can be ascribed to the term fraternity’Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity (p. 8)
Perhaps it’s almost impossible, at the moment, to think of relationships in Marcel’s terms; but perhaps it has never been more urgent and important.
Prof Amanda Fulford is the Associate Dean Research in the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University.
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