The whole human race, he said, with the exception of just one person, is composed of other people. They are everywhere, they talk to you, at you, about you, against you, they bump into you or stand in your way, they are the other party to all your transactions. They have numbers on their side, he said, so you have to find ways of coming to terms with them.
It’s funny, he added, how people always agree with you when you tell them they are right. People who cast doubt on everything else you say leap to agreement with you on this one point; it is the only guaranteed common ground on earth. When you feel disconnected from others and long for a little human agreement this is the way to go about it: tell someone he or she is right about no matter what. The chances of your both being wrong together are just as great as the chances of your being wrong singly, but this casts not the least shadow on your credibility; and this in turn is a wonderful reassurance for yourself. Yes, he summed up, other people can be helpful at times....
It was hard to know what to say in response to this. Or rather it was hard to know how to say it. I said I believed we are all part of one another, and that there are no strangers. He must have seen this for the cliché that it was. At any rate it left him cold. He excused himself and turned away. I watched him as he walked into the distance, a thin figure crowned with an improbable floppy hat, side-stepping the Christmas shoppers. He was dancing around them, I noticed, not holding his own course. They were just shadowy ‘other people’ to him, he had said, but his way of walking belied it: you don't have to side-step shadows. His hat remained vivid for me even as his presence faded. Hats are the essence of clothing, as the head, in spite of all protests, is still in some sense the essence of the body. His hat was all wrong. Some meagre head-cover, or none at all, would have been better; but a floppy hat suggests easy sociability, an expansive manner, everything foreign to a poor lost soul.
He is ‘coming to terms’ with other people, he said. It is a sad lonely expression, and the heart is sore with sympathy for this intelligent man whose life experience has left him disinherited, a shadowy fugitive. There is a wonderful dream and hope of another world in which, in Aquinas’s words, “we will rejoice in one another’s joy as if it were our own, and consequently the joy of one will be as great as the joy of all.” To be exuberantly oneself and at the same time completely at one with others: it is a longing for God, for God’s kind of life, for the life of the Divine Persons. But we would settle for less, we would settle for anything. Even a shadow of it would be wonderful, even an inkling that we were not alone in our loneliness, as Kavanagh said.
Others have been here and known
Griefs we thought our special own.
Oh that our shadows were shadows of God! But they are more often like shades of the dead, drifted away and blown immeasurably far from hearth and home.
But what if it is all a wonderful play! What if the membrane between God and us is thinner than we could ever imagine? I am lost and scanning the distance for my father, but suddenly I find him at my elbow, leaning kindly towards me, knowing that we both remember everything; his voice is my original language, his accent is my own, he speaks of things that are achingly familiar. God is revealed in human flesh, but hiding too: too near to be visible. We live within the blaze of the Divine Persons and we have to be protected by deep shadows from too much light, light which we are not ready for yet.
Not yet. The young man has vanished into the crowd, vanished even more. What is in store for us? How long will we just stand and watch one another walk away? What if he and we were suddenly to walk through the paper wall and enter our inheritance? What keeps us from God and one another...?