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Building co-existence: Part II

This piece originally appeared in Issue 6/2016 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

January 4, 2017 - Krzysztof Czyżewski - Articles and Commentary


In my article “Building co-existence”, which was published on the pages of this magazine around this time last year, I shared with you a tale of two Buddhist monks who encountered a woman at the riverbank. The monks were bound by a pledge of silence during the daytime. However, to the dismay of his travel companion the older monk broke his vows and interacted with the stranger and helped her cross the river. I analysed the reactions of the two monks after this encounter, concluding that they affirmed a certain kind of emotional engagement.

We are in times of continued intercultural tension which sometimes leads to situations when force is used, or basic instincts are evoked. In light of this, I would like to return to my original story and complete it with a series of questions relating to the protagonists’ future: What did they do after the encounter at the riverbank? Did the woman continue the path that the older monk had showed her? Was she able to pass forward the gift that she had received from him? Or did she isolate herself from the world, remaining under the influence of the younger monk? Maybe she forgot about the encounter and never found a connection between the assistance she received from the stranger and her own indifference towards others, especially those in need. Or, if, let us say, she felt such a connection, did she make use of it or rejected it, superseding the truth?

Questions can also be asked in regards to the monks’ fate. Did they remain friends? Did the older monk get expelled from the order for breaking his vows? Did he become a wise man or was he seen as a traitor? What was the path of the younger monk? Was it filled with remorse and dialogue with others? Or hatred and desire for revenge?

Act of crossing

By focusing on the protagonists’ future we want to learn ways to overcome divisions that are established between strangers after an encounter. Clearly, before their meeting with the stranger the monks had been travelling together, sharing the road, their faith and friendship. The woman, who was alone, had not been previously exposed to rejection or a gift from a stranger. It was the meeting at the riverbank that brought their paths together, breaking old ties and establishing new ones. To cross the river the protagonists had to build an invisible bridge, one that was full of tension and creating dependency. Yet can we say for sure that, given what happened at the river, were they able to co-exist on the other side? We could assume that their paths were separated and they did not become neighbours. In this way, we would leave behind a tangle of difficult questions and inter-personal interactions. Just like the old monk left the woman at the riverbank. But making such an assumption only allows us to temporally avoid asking ourselves questions that keep returning to us and are rooted in our everyday existence, calling for practical solutions.

The truth is that something made the two monks and woman continue their journey, remaining migrants. This is a defining feature of globalisation, but also touches upon the truth of humankind. It is the act of crossing. No matter how hard people try to stay home, where everything is safe and known, in reality their thresholds and gates are constantly being crossed. Bridges are torn down and rebuilt, and life in a multicultural society is a norm for an increasingly larger number of people. No visa regime or defence wall will change the fact that cultural borders move with those who bring them to their new communities.

Let us now look at co-existence by aligning it with the thinking of Józef Tischner. The late Polish philosopher and Catholic priest would have never allowed anybody from our story to be left alone ­– the woman at the riverbank, the young monk on the other side of the river, nor would he allow the older monk to isolate himself with his supercilious, yet lonely, wisdom. When asked: “How to live?” Tischner would respond: “It does not matter how, it matters with whom”. Characteristically, he uttered these words as he was nearing his own death. But the old monk’s wisdom can also be traced in Tischner’s earlier writings. As a matter of fact, he was both a philosopher and a spiritual practitioner (you could even say that he was a “community practitioner”). As a practitioner, he never allowed co-existence to be sacrificed for the sake of truth-seeking. Conversely, he saw truth’s credibility in co-existence. Not limiting himself to the sole adherence to the notion of moral values, the priest-philosopher stressed the importance of sinning. He was convinced that his place was among those who think and act either differently or imperfectly. Tischner, in this way, broke with the traditional philosophical reflection on “how to live” and opened it up to co-existence “with others”.

Let others be

For Tischner the Other is not a person with whom we choose to co-exist with. Nor is it a person we separate ourselves from by assigning certain characteristics, which would close us within a blood community, a unity of faith or similarity of worldviews. The Other is someone with whom we share our neighbourhoods, history and accidental meetings. The Other is different than us. And only when we truly start living with this Other, will we really value Tischner’s concept of “how to live”. Only then will our co-existence begin.

Tischner knew that co-existence was not an easy art to live by. However, the concerns that he voiced in regards to community life and solidarity, when Poland was under communism or undergoing the transformation process, are also relevant today. This can be seen in his observations on the closing of modern societies to the outside world, and to foreigners which were a result of Tischner’s discussions with Antoni Kępiński – a distinguished Polish psychiatrist whose work and research were devoted to helping patients with post-war trauma.

Kępiński was born in 1918, near Stanisławów (today: Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine), during the Polish-Ukrainian war. As a child he was captured by Ukrainians but survived thanks to a Ukrainian nanny. He opposed the discrimination policies towards the Jews during the interwar period and was once beaten up by socialists who thought that his red hat meant that he was associated with a nationalist group. He also spent almost three years in a concentration camp, where he was heavily beaten and was inside a hunger cell for one month. After the war Kępiński was one of the first psychiatrists who worked with former Auschwitz prisoners, and thanks to his research findings, survivor syndrome became an internationally recognised mental health condition.

In 1969 the doctor was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. He was placed in the Kraków University Clinic where he was often visited by Tischner. In 1973, one year after Kępiński’s passing, Tischner paid tribute to his friend in the essay “Filozofia wypróbowanejnadziei”(“Philosophy of tested hope”). On the tenth anniversary of Kępiński’s death, when Poland was under Martial Law, Tischner wrote another essay, “Społeczeństwo dialogu”(“Society of dialogue”) in which he stressed something that they both deeply shared – Gabriel Marcel’s rule: “let others be”.

Men from hideouts

The most important of Tischner’s texts that reflects his meetings with Kępiński is “Ludzie z kryjówek” (“Men from hideouts”). This essay, which was first published in 1978, presents a deeply divided society. Its members are scared of meeting others or opening up to the outside world, a place where they are trying to find a scapegoat. The thinking of Kępiński and Tischner overlaps with our Buddhist story of co-existence – at the moment when the monks are deciding whether or not to cross the river together. Prior to that they had experienced, what Tischner calls, a pilgrim’s myth. It is an approach of a wonderer; a man heading towards the unknown, a man who is not afraid to leave the burden of the past behind him. Being able to seize the moment, such a man experiences the road and hope. This most valuable gift of life, in Tischner’s view, allows us to pursue values.

The story of co-existence, however, also shows life as it is. It is personified by the younger monk. His behaviour shows many of the same traits which are characteristic of the divisions of today’s societies. Noticeably, they are found in people whose decisions have contributed to an overall increase in support for populist politicians. They, in turn, contribute to the deepening of fear towards others, turning national and cultural identity into a fortress against the outside world. Tischner would see them as “men from hideouts”.

The change that occurred in the younger monk, as he experienced the world from the other side of the riverbank, can also be seen through the prism of the “men from hideouts”. Upon his encounter with the woman the monk ceased to carefully analyse his surroundings and started to fear meeting others. The burden of the past turned his travel into an escape. As a result, the “space of co-existence” – to use Tischner’s term – of both monks (a pilgrim and a man from a hideout) become very different. While the older monk was responsive to others’ needs, the younger monk remained stuck in his old ways, looking for easy pretexts to issue accusations towards others while hiding his own weaknesses or sins. He also wanted to do everything possible to focus attention on the fact that the older monk broke his vows, as he touched the woman’s body. Such accusations allow domination over others. Characteristically, this is how the men from hideouts tame their neighbours and the world.

Deriving from Kępiński, Tischner analysed different forms of psychological games that lead to domination of one man over another. They include hysteria, which can indeed turn co-existence into a theatre of extreme emotions used for manipulating human reactions. Further, what pushes hysterics to the stage makes psychasthenics close themselves inside. In their games they hide behind a mask of submissiveness and a seemingly meek disposition. However, once the masks are removed, their faces show anger and jealousy – a syndrome of a servant who has been offered a chance to become a master. It is the personality of someone with an obsessive compulsive disorder, one that we can also see in the younger monk.

Lost people

People who are obsessive compulsive tend to close themselves off in their hideouts. They see evil both in themselves and around them. Their egocentrism is different than people suffering from hysteria in the way they tend to justify their actions with high-level ideals aimed at saving people and the whole world. They accuse others of wrongdoing, using all possible ways to infect them with a sense of guilt and forcing them to constantly prove their innocence. As a result, co-existence turns into a space dominated by the “moral superiority” of the obsessive-compulsive and their aspiration to reach the absolute truth. The organisation of the space of co-existence, as it was described by Kępiński and Tischner, is based on fear and deepening contrasts. For the men from hideouts, identity comes from separation, negation and caging in. Such people do not trust others, only seeing them as enemies who need to be subordinated. Even when they get to know others nothing changes as they believe they already know everything about them, even before the meeting takes place. In Kępiński’s view, our presence in the space of co-existence, which becomes a subordination game, takes place against our primary will. It is determined by context and life circumstances, as nobody enters this world with an inborn fear of others. It is the Other who extracts this fear from us. Tischner completed Kępiński’s analysis with a reflection indicating that “possessive men” are lost souls. Closing yourself off from the world does not make you happy, but it generates misery.

Tischner knew that his reflections on the men from hideouts, which are an illustration of the crisis of community-living in today’s world, had to go beyond description of symptoms and a critical analysis of the illness. He was most interested in people’s ability to get out of their hideouts and establish a space of co-existence. This required a different language and a different approach. Tischner thus said: “while psychotherapy knows more about the structure of a pathology than about the process of healing, ethics knows more about the structure of guilt than the process of conversion”. Filling this gap, in his view, is only possible when a doctor and a philosopher come together.

Tischner would not agree with the belittling and relativisation of closing a man and society, something in which he saw a deep wound; one which determines our emotional state and conduct. It is a wound that is very difficult to heal: “A passage from the space of hope into the space of a hideout is a fall of a man of a very deep ethical meaning. And even though this fall is not a fall into a sin, into a conscious and free-will quilt, it is indeed a fall,” he stressed.

Another significant step on the path to overcome the closing is to leave the platform of confrontation, on which the “dialectics of contradictions determines the way of co-existence with others”. This is probably the greatest challenge. Even more as it refers to everyone with whom we share existence and everybody with whom we co-exist. Those who are right, instead of waiting for recognition from others, have to start building bridges. This is not easy; neither for people from the hideouts, nor those who are looking at them with pity. The language that we use, and our culture – including the media in which we are immersed – are not favourable in this regard. What gives us strength to undertake such a challenge? Kępiński was convinced that liberation comes from a captive space of co-existence. Its precondition is a “deep turnover in the way we experience values”.

The deep social polarisation that we are experiencing in 2016 is the reason why we find “people from hideouts” not only among the traditional opponents of openness to others and the world, but also in liberal and cosmopolitan circles. When it comes to the latter two, their openness to the world does not necessarily overlap with their reaching out to their neighbours. Replacing co-existence with a frontline makes us divided by a wall of prejudice, illusions and hurting judgements. As a result, the experience of our own dignity is based on crooked images and messages, what Kępiński called, the “information metabolism” and which at the biological, emotional and socio-cultural level determines our community life. The next question is: how to straighten out the information metabolism? Kępiński was convinced that it required increased awareness, work and a disposal of our complexes.

Two shores

Hence, the story of co-existence is a story of two shores. On one shore, we help the Other – we reach out to him or her, breaching our own rules and limitations. We offer help to the weak and the newcomers. As a result, we prepare legal and systematic tools, like European multicultural policies which include – among others – affirmative action and gender quotas. On the other shore, though, these are not enough. The challenge comes not only from others, but also increasingly from those who have not felt included in a society that has become more modernised and where borders have become softer and identities are more fluid.

As a whole, we are a society with a troubled past. To continue our life together we need an act of overcoming. It does not matter who will undertake this challenge – although we start to notice the potential of the woman who was on the other side. She is the one who had accepted the gift from the stranger and eventually overcame her fear towards him. Possibly, it would be her who would do the most to help all three build that invisible bridge.

What is the most crucial, however, is what prepares us for the overcoming of the paralysis of deep inter-human divisions that we experience on the other side of the river. It is letting the others be. Letting them believe in the indestructibility of human dignity and tie an inter-human thread of trust.

In this way, the story of co-existence returns to its beginning. The Other, who establishes a real community, does not come from nowhere. Together, we traverse the two shores that need invisible bridges. Each requires different material. Together we prepare ourselves for the overcoming of our hideouts. And this is where it all begins, not for the first time. A process that has once been established this way can become a constructive process of building co-existence with others whom we encounter in our neighbourhoods, by fate or through travels. Through these encounters we are offered a chance to reach good which, as Tischner believed, was diffusible and, on its own, predisposed to become embodied in our human co-existence.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Krzysztof Czyżewski is a Polish intellectual and essayist. He is the founder and director of Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations Centre in Sejny (Poland). 

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