words by Nelly Bateman
photography: Pauline by Guillaume Gaubert
The boundaries between myself and other people have always been treacherous to navigate. I can rarely tell if my emotions belong to me or someone else. And so I like to imagine my brain like a kaleidoscope: a colourful hall of mirrors in which the only way out is to parse the real from the reflection.
I got my first kaleidoscope when I was seven. I thought the red and green metal canister, jingling with beads, was a telescope. Excited, I ran out to my backyard and held it up to the sky, but I quickly learned what a kaleidoscope does, and what bad telescopes they make. My mom raced after me, but she didn’t catch up before I broke down in tears because the image reflected between my hands did not resemble the crystalline blue stretching above me. And so I learned to think that kaleidoscopes speak in riddles; to find the inner contents of their mechanism distracting. I thought they were locked in their beautiful but lonely inner world.
And, seeing my mind much as the same, I learned to make conscious efforts to reach out, to break the repetition. I learned to draw in the boundaries that designate the in-between of myself and the world around me. My seven year-old self loved the sky because it was the same colour as her eyes; she wanted it to absorb her entirely. Now I know that half the fun of having eyes is not the longing to reflect the sky but the simple pleasure of cloud watching. Even when I get these crucial distinctions wrong, it’s helpful to know where I’m headed besides the vague out of my head. How can I love someone when I’m not sure where they begin and I end? Thus I have learned that love is a practice of distinction-making.
“I first encountered Weil when I was 16 and heavy with the world, and I’ve returned to her time and again until my copy of Gravity and Grace flopped open under the weight of ink and page markers.”
And so I learned to turn myself inside out towards the world, thinking I am imitating Christ when really I am only ever engaged in self-soothing sympathy. In sympathy, we drive ourselves further into our self because refuse to acknowledge that we suffer. We become so fixated on getting out of our heads that we forget our own brokenness and inevitably see the other person through our own suffering without realizing it. French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, ‘belief in the existence of other beings as such is love.’ How can I love if I cannot see my neighbour in their broken entirety, if I never see my lens for what it is: a kaleidoscopic intersection of experience and suffering?
I first encountered Weil when I was 16 and heavy with the world, and I’ve returned to her time and again until my copy of Gravity and Grace flopped open under the weight of ink and page markers. Weil reminds me that empathy, in contrast to sympathy, acknowledges the absurd and indiscriminate nature of pain. Empathy requires that we first admit to ourselves that we are a being who suffers, thus entering into the experience of another only ever means that we find something that already existed, in some way, within ourselves. We simply acknowledge something that was already there, our own pain. Being empathetic means entering into the soul of the other, which means allowing your suffering to be seen by them, in turn. Not only is this counterintuitive, but it is also the epitome of the void.
“To fall in love is to trip over the boundaries of your experience and to land with one foot in another’s. We pressed our nose to the glass, enraptured by curiosity, and we’re thrown off balance by the desire to know a person in all their brokenness.”
Weil frequently reminds me that ‘Among human beings, only the existence of those we love is fully recognized.’ In loving, we create within ourselves a projection of the world of someone else. This projection is radically personalized and runs on an overwhelming curiosity about the other-worldly. Only the full existence of those we love is recognized because they are the only ones whose suffering we are willing to comprehend. Or, more precisely, they are the only ones whose suffering we can even see in the first place. You cannot use a telescope to fall in love: only the refractions created by a kaleidoscope can allow us to see what we are doing when we love — seeing the brokenness of another person through our own suffering.
Weil wrote that ‘love on the part of someone who is happy is the wish to share the suffering of the beloved who is unhappy.’ Love — of the divine, of your neighbour, of your self — is a curiosity. Sometimes, that curiosity means confronting the reality of universal suffering. To fall in love is to trip over the boundaries of your experience and to land with one foot in another’s. We pressed our nose to the glass, enraptured by curiosity, and we’re thrown off balance by the desire to know a person in all their brokenness — a brokenness that is at once profoundly different and profoundly similar to our own. This curiosity is partially fuelled by the desire to know that the weight of brokenness is not only carried by ourselves.
“Empathy requires that we first admit to ourselves that we are a being who suffers, thus entering into the experience of another only ever means that we find something that already existed, in some way, within ourselves.”
And so Weil proposes a new of freedom — a freedom through, not freedom from. It is a freedom from the object of our love, but not from its suffering. She looks up from her colouring book to tell me that ‘to wish for the existence of free consent in another, deprived of it by affliction, is to transport oneself into him; it is to consent to affliction oneself.’ We use our inner kaleidoscopic mechanism to reflect within ourselves the beloved’s brokenness. This kind of attention is not destructive but decreative: ‘one gives oneself in ransom for the other.’
What we owe to others, in this way, is ourselves. We give ourselves ‘in ransom for the other,’ Weil repeats. She finishes the drawing and tells me it is the picture Lily painted in To the Lighthouse. This ransom is not a total renunciation, as the bond between ourselves and others created by the shared possibility of pain is fundamentally an expansion. To lock ourselves within ourselves out of fear of suffering limits the self to the icy cool contents of its mechanism. We turn from kaleidoscopes to telescopes We see nothing but distorted reflections of the real and mistake it for the truth of another person’s existence.
An acceptance of suffering is not a resignation to it, nor does it lock us deeper within ourselves. Knowing myself as an absurd being that the sky, that my neighbour, that I ought to love indifferently does not reduce me to an ant. Accepting suffering allows me to love because we etch a permanent crack on the side of our kaleidoscope. Instead of seeing the world through our own lens, we let its light trickle in through the sides and illuminate the real within ourselves.