Service and the Other

According to Levinas, when we encounter the Other, we are met with more than just a visual, static representation. What rises to meet us is dynamic, mysterious, and inobjectifiable-it is an experience, and this living presence of the Other is what Levinas calls as the Face. When this Face of the Other appears to us, as Levinas says, we hear a silent, entreating command of “thou shall not kill.” This command contains a double negative with “not” and “kill”, ultimately forming a positive implication which may be interpreted as a plea of the Other to be loved, to be cherished, and to be taken care of.

Levinas also asserts that this Face is invisible but at the same time recognizable through any part of the Other, may it be the person’s actual visage or even, say, the back of his neck. Its nature is evasive and, therefore, is a mystery to us. Because of our inability to comprehend or grasp the Face fully, it has the power to capture our attention and invites us to know more of the Other. The Face draws us out of ourselves, and we soon come to realize our desire to be with the ungraspable Other until our hopes and dreams merge and become one with or can help the Other fulfill their own hopes and dreams. Suddenly, we are not our own: we have gone out and beyond ourselves, not anymore existing for one’s own purpose. With this, we attain infinity.

Among all the lessons discussed in this philosophy class, the discussions on Levinas’ Totality and Infinity were what mattered to me the most. It brought me back my right to fully love and be kind, and sometimes validation is what you only but most desperately need. Last year, in my psychology 101 class, we had treaded upon the subject of altruism as part of our discussion on the pyschology and rationale behind reward and punishment. In the end, though the professor did not exactly specify it as such and merely ended the discussion with an open question, the only possible conclusion there was to make was that true altruism does not exist: we simply help others in order to feel good about ourselves, or to deter any future guilt that may arise.

Having heard this, I was taken aback, and, gradually, surprise gave way to disappointment. Disappontment with myself, with others, with all the efforts that Ateneo takes pains just to immerse students in the “real world”, and in the very notion of service itself. Is this how it really is? Then how superficial helping and service truly are, and in truth these are then just actions we do for our own interests and benefit. I was a young and hopeful freshie then, and I had signed up to be a member of various organizations, mostly those from the Sector-Based Cluster. I had thought that in joining these organizations I would be able to help various sectors; but, as according to my psych class, I was only helping myself feel good about myself helping others. I felt distraught in learning this, and stopped attending org events and stopped joining area visits, because there no longer seemed a good enough reason to serve the sectors.

But now, upon learning about the concept of Levinas’ Face, my right to help and to serve was renewed. I realized that I do like to help, not because it will make me feel good about myself, but precisely because I am taken out of myself. In area visits, I experience the truly Other: the Other with the different reality, the Other tht needs help, and the Other that needs to be lifted out of their poverty. And as a human being capable to sympathize and to recognize the poverty of the Face, I am inclined to respond by accepting the responsibility for the Other. I help because of the Face of the Other, entirely mysterious and invisible yet palpable and capable to capture our attentions, provokes me to do so. I help because I hear the the silent command, “thou shall not kill,” which ultimately means “take care of me,” “love me,” and “do not leave me.” Wanting to be responsible for the Other is not farfetched at all (or, at worst, seflish); rather, as according to Levinas, we do so because it separates us from this state of impersonality and indeterminacy (called the “Il y ya”). It is the only way we ever truly live and exist, ever truly be a human being.

I believe and resonate with the truth and relevance of Levinas’ Face.

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