Encountering Passivity

One of the attributes that a good thinker should possess, but that I habitually lack, is consistency and discipline with terminology. I am always using a word or phrase in one context and then discovering that I have been using it in a different sense elsewhere or that I have been using several terms to describe essentially the same idea. A friend recently brought one of these terminological difficulties to my attention. We were talking about encounter, and she noted that I sometimes speak about actively encountering the other, and sometimes about being passively encountered by the other. When I returned to some of the posts I have written on the subject over the years, I realized that this was true of my writing as well as my conversation, and since this point is significant for me, I will try to clarify it as best I can.

I do not believe that we encounter others in activity, but that we are encountered by others in passivity. Activity can open us to the possibility of encounter, can prepare us for encounter, but the encounter itself must always and in every case be experienced in passivity, because any activity of ours that would try to create the encounter would always predetermine the other according to our own intentions and impose ourselves on the other in ways that would prevent us from ever receiving the other as such. The only way to receive the other is in passivity, before we even recognize the other as an other.

Our task, then, is not to manufacture encounter with the other, but to be actively open to the possibility that we will be encountered, that we will be moved in our bellies by the approach of the other. though this encounter will certainly not be from any activity of our own.

  1. Isaiah said:

    Our task, if not to manufacture encounter with the other, is rather to manufacture the openness for the encounter with the other? Or to use theological language: encounter with the other is an act of grace, and to re-mix Tillich’s phrase we have to encounter the fact we will be encountered.

  2. Isaiah,

    Yes, I would say that the word ‘grace’ is not inappropriate here, that encounter is something that comes to me apart from any effort on my own part, not because I deserve it, but merely because is comes, and I can only be prepared to receive it.

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