Faith & Thought

Hatred, Indifference, and Love: Ways of Coexistence

Memory plays tricks on us, so perhaps I am wrong when I recall that the nature of interpersonal relationships was not emphasized in classes when I was a student in college and in the seminary. Now, interpersonal relationships are on my mind as much as any other topic.

What I think about human relationships influences how I preach at Sunday Eucharists, what I stress in just about every course I teach at St. John’s University, and what I write in these weekly columns and in books. I have come to believe that the so-called “self-made man” does not exist.

On every single level of being human, we coexist with other human beings. We coexist on the level of knowing; we coexist emotionally; we coexist on the level of action. We even coexist in our religious lives.

When I think of coexisting on the level of knowing, I think immediately of the teachers I have had. The Sisters of Charity of Halifax who taught me at Our Lady of Angels grammar school in Bay Ridge were incredibly dedicated women. Because of their intelligence and commitment, I was able to pass entrance exams at several high schools and win scholarships to two very prestigious high schools.

I suspect all those sisters are in heaven now and I owe them more than even I realize. I feel the same way about the Jesuits and laymen who taught me and coached me at Xavier High School in Manhattan. My graduate work in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington and at Marquette University in Milwaukee enabled me to teach philosophy at several colleges. At Marquette, I was blessed to become friends with the greatest teacher I ever had, Bernard Cooke.

We also coexist for better or worse in knowing through newspapers and magazines we read and news shows we watch on television. We coexist on the level of emotion. Spend all your time with people who are sad, and it will be difficult for you to be happy.

Spend all your time with people who are happy, and it will be difficult for you to be sad. I was blessed in having two wonderful parents and a sister who I think was a saint. We coexist on the level of action. For better or worse, we are living in the midst of a technological revolution.

When in philosophy classes at St. John’s University I teach the coexistence of human persons, I talk about three examples of coexisting: hatred, indifference, and love. I believe that every person is a combination of what I refer to as facticity and subjectivity.

Facticity is very easy to understand. It refers to all the facts about a person. For example, the person’s height, weight, age, skin pigmentation, sexual orientation. It can also refer to where the person works, where the person lives, and many other facts that can frequently change.

While a person’s facticity is easy to understand, it is impossible to completely understand a person’s subjectivity, which refers to the free, conscious, unique human being created by God. Even the person cannot completely understand his or her own subjectivity.

In trying to provoke students at St. John’s to reflect on how mysterious personal existence is, I refer to three ways of coexisting: hatred, indifference, and love. By hatred I do not mean not liking someone. I mean wishing a person serious evil and perhaps even inflicting serious evil. The person who hates in the way I am using the term is transformed by hatred. The “hater” is worse off than the “hated.”

The “hated” suffers some evil; the hater seems destined for hell. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with powerful depictions of hatred. Cassius hates Caesar, so he gets Brutus to murder Caesar. Iago hates Othello, so he gets Othello to murder his own wife Desdemona. Hamlet hates his uncle and almost murders him. Whether anyone in real life hates the way I have described it, I don’t know, but I see indifference everywhere.

By indifference I mean reducing the other person to his or her facticity, either by denying the person’s subjectivity or by overlooking it. In effect the person who relates to another person only on the level of the person’s facticity takes what I call “the nothing but” approach. Examples are “You are nothing but a person of color” or “You are nothing but a female” or “You are nothing but a secretary” or ‘You are nothing but a Jew.”

I see examples of indifference everywhere in our society. I even see it in the Church. Indifferent relationships philosopher Martin Buber called it “I-It” and said it is always immoral to treat a person as an “It.” I find it interesting that Buber claimed it is impossible to have an “I-It” relationship with God because God is so much Thou.

Reflections on the interpersonal relationship that we call love will have to wait for some other column.