I Don't Self-Exist
Individuality and the Regard of Others
“I wonder how many people I've looked at all my life and never seen.”
― John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
A few weeks ago my nine year old son and his neighborhood friend (we’ll call him Buddy) were jumping on the trampoline in the backyard. Buddy’s parents arrived to fetch him home for dinner and I stepped out to greet them. Small talk ensued, all the while, my son is yelling “Dad, watch this! Watch this!”
In addition to Buddy, our neighbors have a teenager. As I’m watching my son flip and spin on the trampoline with the unique and peculiar glee of a nine year old boy, I ask my neighbors – “has your teenager grown out of the ‘watch me, watch me’ phase?”
A short reflective pause. Then; “No, it just looks different. Do any of us really ever grow out of it? We all make bids to be seen.”
In one of those moments in which time and space stand still, I saw myself projected through my son – the child in me still yelling “watch me, watch me!”
For the next week, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. While familiar with the bromide of ‘being seen,’ there was a revelatory truth about the nature of relationships that I was seeking to find language for. It clicked when a friend reminded me of something Esther Meek said – “we are constituted by the gaze of the other.”
This idea contradicts the sacred construct of individuality we hold so dearly in our culture, and so elegantly gives language to the epiphany sparked by my neighbor that night next to the backyard trampoline. In this notion of self, our personhood is inextricable from relationship. We do not self-exist. We are brought into existence by the regard of others. To see others is not just an affirmation, it is a creative affection that leaves the seen changed; a denser, bigger, truer version of themselves.
A couple updates –
On Wednesday this week I’m speaking on a panel titled Unlearning Individualism, hosted by LTHJ Global, where I’ll continue this conversation and further unpack some of these themes. Register for the free webinar here.
I’m still working on finishing part 3 of the Work, Burnout, and Human Value series (part 1 here, and part 2 here). For those of you asking, I haven’t forgotten about it and it will come eventually. Work and life have both been significant inhibitors to sustained writing time.
I have paused paid subscriptions as I’m not publishing here often enough to feel I’m creating value worth paying for. So for those handful of you who are paid subscribers, you won’t see any transactions process until I am able to get back to publishing more regularly.
I hope your spring is off to a great start. As always, much love.