How Complete Are We When Not Perceived by Others? – Thoughts on a Quote by Jennifer Michael Hecht

“We are indebted to one another, and the debt is a kind of faith, a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.”

-From the book “Stay” by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Without taking an absolutist stance, the quote suggests that we do not fully exist or are fully realized until we are perceived in the eyes of others; that we are better, more whole, when believed into being.

It does seem a beautiful notion: that without another to acknowledge us, to share in the struggles of life and explore the very strange landscape that is human existence, we are less. It denotes the special designation that is community in its many forms, such as two people, a close group of friends, co-workers, a religious organization, a running club, or even society as a whole. It is through these groups that we become more complete. It is they who enrich our lives, who give us context and something with which to relate. They help set our culture, shape our belief systems, and by extension, help us become who we are.

In fact, who would we be without our families, our friends, our society?

I think back to times when I have been isolated on extended walks in the woods or maybe the first time my parents went on a vacation and I was left “in charge.” Perhaps structures and surroundings create some context, such as a house, a recognizable neighborhood, or grocery store, but still we are alone with ourselves and in unfamiliar territory without others, no matter how familiar the view.  Imagine yet becoming even more isolated, in a wilderness, or alien country. Who would we be in that context? Would we be a more authentic version of our self or attempt to assimilate to our surroundings?

On this topic of community, I am reminded of John Donne’s Meditation XVII:

“No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

There is comfort here in this notion that flies in the face of individualism; that though we might take great pride in “being ourselves” and not letting others define us, there is something to be said for also being a part of the whole; a greater reality, something much larger than ourselves, a belonging, a oneness.

And can we ever really not let others define us?

I also like that Hecht calls this attachment to community “debt”. We are not meant to find ways out of our debts, but to honorably pay them in whatever form that payment comes. We are indeed indebted to take part in our communities. This is hopefully a happy labor, for without this community, it is true I think, we are indeed somehow less, somehow incomplete.

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