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Still in Germany, my brother continues to be my teacher. The main obstacle to appreciating the many learning opportunities rests in my reluctance to be the pupil. In her essay, The sovereignty of good over other concepts (1967), the philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) writes that the difficulty in seeing things as they are (with things, people, ourselves) is that the Ego continually wants to retreat into the fog of self-pity, prejudice, doubt, and wishful thinking. In short, “to be truly virtuous is to embrace the realism of everyday life.”
So I set out to learn. What is it, for instance, that I can learn from being around someone who continually annoys me with his absent-mindedness, his need to win every argument, his impatience with things outside his experience, his prejudice towards foreigners (especially those wearing headscarves), his unwillingness to deal with interpersonal issues head-on, etc.? O my, what a menu, just listen to me.
Opportunities to be patient and compassionate abound. I have begun to observe my reactivity as it arises, to listen carefully without responding, and to look more closely at this man as he sits, walks, and shakes his head. How little I know him! Calling him ‘brother’ assumes that he and I are intimate terms and that he’ll mysteriously behave in ways that meet my needs of belonging. In fact, we spent only a few years together as children and have lived separate lives for the last 45 years.
The very label brother — indeed the naming of anything — tends to obscure what is there. Instead of seeing and appreciating the person before me, I react to an abstract concept. Unclear of my expectations of a brother, I react instinctively from places deeply rooted in childhood deficits. What goes on in my heart-mind continues to be a mystery — what goes on in his, I can barely guess.
Work to do!