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:
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.
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 rôles of ‘touching’ and being ‘touched.’
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.
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.