Wednesday, August 1, 2012

And the Two Will Become One Flesh

If I learned one thing about philosophers during my academic adventures, it's that they have an uncanny ability to find profundity in seemingly ordinary aspects of human existence. From Aristotle's examination of the parts of animals to Heidegger's essays on technology, the philosopher refuses to be satisfied with what first strikes the eye, insisting on a deeper inquiry. This tendency can be exhausting and even mundane when pursued for its own sake. But every so often, the philosopher hits on a bedrock of truth.

Yesterday as I observed my one-year-old playing with her hands (she is especially fascinated with her hands and feet right now), I was reminded of one such insight that I found particularly intriguing in grad school. In his famous work Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty uses the example of two hands touching to illustrate sensory experience:

When I press my two hands together, it is not a matter of two sensations felt together as one perceives two objects placed side by side, but an ambiguous set-up in which both hands can alternate the rĂ´les of ‘touching’ and being ‘touched.’
 Several phenomenologists (a fancy term used to designate philosophers that belong to this particular school of thought) used this example to illustrate the way in which human beings struggle to obtain a purely subjective or objective perspective. It is impossible to say, when the two hands touch, which hand touches which. The two are entangled and intertwined in such a way that the border itself becomes ambiguous. The hands sense and are sensed simultaneously. This ambiguity is of prime importance for phenomenology.

As I watched my toddler attempt to tickle her own palm (she just doesn't quite get that you can't tickle yourself), I was struck with the thought that this ambiguity extends into the realm of the domestic church - of the family.  In previous posts, my husband and I have spoken against the idea that each family member is an isolated individual, a self-sustaining unit that is simply part of a well-oiled machine that is known as a "family." In order for there to be any change in the contemporary notions of what it is to be a family, this fundamental assumption must change. A family is not simply the sum of its individual parts.

Like the example of the hands, the relation of each family member to the next is not crystal clear. Although we can certainly distinguish certain roles and tendencies for each family member, it is not clear that each exists apart from the other. In reality, the members of the family are always "touching," to use the example of the two hands. They sustain each other, conflict with each other, perhaps even repulse each other...but they are always and everywhere in relation.

The funny thing about the example of the hands is that it presupposes a human being with two hands who passes judgment on the sensory contact. The person whose hands touch each other has a strange ability to feel that movement "from inside," if you will, and pass judgement on that feeling. When you touch your hands together, you feel the pressure on each fingertip, the transfer of weight from one to another. The border is always there, though it is always ambiguous.

If only we could feel our families "from inside." We might see that we are not as isolated as we believe. So often we view a husband and wife as two unique individuals with their own individual rights, and so forth. In this view, the idea of "becoming one flesh" is simply that: a lovely idea, but not a concrete reality. If only we could feel that border between man and wife, mother and daughter, father and son, from the inside. We might see that our personal "bubbles" are only a product of self will.

Interestingly, for Catholics the prayer position is one in which the hands are intertwined. May it remind us that we do not exist for ourselves, by ourselves, or from ourselves.


  1. Beautifully said and so true! The more I give myself in love, the more free I am and the more fully myself I become. Devin and I have only been married for six years, yet I cannot imagine myself without him. I think and speak in terms of "we". At times, it sounds like I am using the royal plural, and I laugh at myself. :)

    1. Thank you Katie! I do the same thing!! :) It's funny the way that happens, isn't it?

      I think people are often skeptical when they hear things like that ("I cannot imagine myself without him," etc.), and immediately conclude that you must be "co-dependent" or what not. In reality, finding oneself in the other is such a deep part of what it means to be human. A true and sincere gift of self (which is what marriage should be) brings true freedom.