by David Jewson
From the time each of us can first remember we know ourselves, we are each aware of ourselves as something in the world, as a person. We know we are persons and see others like us, and assume they too must be persons, each viewing the world in much the same way as we do.
This is one version of an idea that varies between cultures. So, in African tribal culture, men are only persons once they have been through the rituals performed as they change from children into men, and then only if they do things in the interest of their community and village.
Beyond the most basic needs, such as food, water, shelter and health, many of the most important needs are emotional rather than logical, after all, pleasure itself is an emotion. Personal relationships seem particularly important. We don’t build personal relationships with everyone we meet, indeed, often we seem to regard other people as ‘things’ rather than people, and although we can be pleasant or unpleasant to them, in the end they don’t really matter that much to us. For example, we might watch a film where the hero escapes from a gang of villains. If he shoots the villains, it means nothing to us, in fact, quite the reverse, we are pleased the villains are dead. We feel nothing of their pain, or the pain to come for their spouses, children and friends.
However, if we do build a personal relationship with someone, ‘connect with them’, something rather bizarre happens – we begin to care for them, indeed, sometimes, we might even begin to love them. Why, or how this happens is not at all clear, it seems to be an emotional rather than a logical thing. Returning to the hero in our film, if we had somehow ‘connected’ with him, then if he were injured it would matter to us. We would even feel his pain, with the same pain centres activated in our own brains as if we ourselves had been hurt, we might even cry, without knowing why. It is as if the hero and ourselves were not only connected but in some bizarre way, had become almost the same person.
There is a story about Malcolm X, the black American human rights activist, as a child, and his foster parents, the Swerlins, who were white. The Swerlins treated him very kindly, but more like a pet than a human being. So, for example, they would say things in front of him without realising that he might have feelings, or be hurt by what they said. He was treated more as an ‘it’ rather than a ‘person’. It would appear that they had not ‘connected’ with him, for if they had, they would surely have felt his pain at some of the things they were saying.
The amount of pain that human beings inflict on each other in this world is unbelievable, particularly as we are each only here for a comparatively short time and, ultimately, we will all die, leaving acts of cruelty done in our lives as seemingly senseless. But if we regard other people as ‘its’ rather than people, those cruel acts seem perhaps to make more sense. All that prejudice, all that turning away from the suffering of others, is perhaps because we have not ‘connected’ with the people involved, we do not feel their pain or their happiness, they are not ‘one’ with us.
It is interesting how people seek ‘connected’ relationships. So, a patient will prefer to see a doctor whom he or she has seen before and ‘connected’ with. Many doctors say that the relationship with their patients is therapeutic to both of them, makes them both feel better. Many sick patients need not only treatment, they also need a physician who can ‘connect’ with them, share in their experiences and justify their value as people, despite their illness. Only their physician can justify them in this way, as their physician understands both them and their illness in a way that their friends and family cannot.
Personalism is a philosophy that is particularly interested in people and their personal view on life. It is also interested in their emotions and the things that are important to them, but crucially recognises the need for human beings to have relationships, and the unique ability of relationships to make people care for each other. In a good ‘connected’ relationship, you will love your neighbour as yourself, something good for both yourself and your community and a Christian value dating back over two thousand years. If you have good relationships, it is likely you will value those relationships above money and material things, a Christian, Chinese and African value, again probably dating back thousands of years. So important are relationships for most people, that a life without relationships would hardly be a life worth living at all, or at least would miss out on one of the very best parts of living. Many religious people feel the most important and fulfilling parts of their life to be their relationship with their God.