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The Art of the Encounter


In his marvelous Samba da Benção the Brazilian writer, singer, diplomat, and professional malandro Vinicius de Moraes speaks of the “art of the encounter” which, as the rest of the famous song-poem suggests, speaks to the essentially prayerful and therefore sacred nature of our attempts to understand each other, and the need to persist in the midst of life’s many tragedies and misunderstandings. It presumes, in other words, that there is unexplainable beauty and enchantment to be experienced, providing we can learn to be fully present in our encounters—including sad ones—with our fellow travelers. 

It’s not like Vinicius was inventing anything terribly new. The call to cultivate a state of expectant waiting in the midst of often sordid realities of life can be found, in one form or another, in all of the world’s major religious traditions. Indeed, it could be argued, and many have, that it is precisely the cultivation of the habit of stubborn hoping that separates us from the rest of the planet’s living creatures. 

Though I cannot be sure, I doubt the steers trudging toward their demise in the chutes at a stockyard are engaged in prayerfully remembering the beauty their eyes have taken in over the years or the internal warmth felt in the intimate communications with other bovines, or that they are hoping against hope that something approaching the sheer magic of those moments will once again visit them in this world or the next. Or that, conversely, they are obsessively contemplating the fate of what awaits them in the kill-house. 

But if, in fact, they did have this same cognitive and emotional tendencies, you can be sure that agricultural scientists, working for the ever smaller number of firms that control our food supply, would have used every genetic, behavioral, and pharmacological tool in their power to rid them of this way of being. 

After all, an angry steer is much more likely to act out in the chutes, thus putting a crimp on productivity, and from there, profit, the be-all and end-all of contemporary life. And all the cortisol in the system of the stressed and depressed ones probably does, as some have asserted, affect the quality of the meat. 

An important element of the practice of expectant waiting is presuming, at least initially, the essential goodwill of all with whom we share words and ideas in the course of our days. 

But of course, not everyone does come to encounters with others in a spirit of goodwill. In fact, many people often arrive at personal encounters with their minds set on extracting whatever material or spiritual good they can from the other person, and/or seeking the thrill certain of them seem to get from exercising one degree or another of control over that other’s life destiny. 

Again, there is little terribly novel in what I have just said. All of the great wisdom traditions have recognized the irretrievably dichotomous nature of the human being.

However, for reasons having to do with our relatively brief and fortunate history, and the fact that our collective was conceived, unlike those in most other places, within the relatively new paradigm of inexorable linear progress, Americans, it seems, have a harder time than most when it comes admitting the essentially coequal status of good and evil within the human heart. Unlike people from other cultures I have known, Americans seem to have a need to believe that human beings are more good than malevolent, and that somehow someway everything will work out well in the end. 

This lack of what Unamuno called the “tragic sense of life” was, up until a very short time ago, arguably our greatest asset as a people, and perhaps the prime source of the magnetism we’ve exercised over so much of the world during the last hundred or so years. 

But as times change, so must our assumptions about how the culture around us actually functions. If, in fact, we were ever truly the fresh-faced kid on the block sowing optimism and promoting justice around the world in anomalously generous quantities, that is clearly no longer the case. 

We are now a large and flailing empire whose elites, like the elites of all empires in decline, are seeking to desperately stave off the inevitable by barricading themselves (and as many of us as they can) inside the walls of their own propaganda edifice, and by bringing the same brutality they have used to tame distant others and steal their resources to bear on the great mass of their homeborn population. 

It is never fun to have to admit that someone or some social entity to which you have given your trust and your presumption of goodwill is not only manifestly incapable of reciprocating it, but is frankly bent on sacrificing your well-being and your dignity to its desperate attempts to cling to a few more months, years, or decades of obscene privilege. 

But that is where we are with our present government and the behemoth corporate entities with whom they now seamlessly cooperate in their desire to further control and exploit us. 

A minority of Americans, not surprisingly from the less favored classes where the brutality of day-to-day life tends to rob the elite’s non-stop happy-ending stories of their legs, has figured this out. And this is why they are systematically slandered in the media as frothing racists and violent extremists. 

The elite gambit here is to stigmatize such people so badly that no one on the cusp of perhaps accepting all or part of their grim but realistic social analysis will deign to go near them for fear of being seen as similarly tainted. Out of sight, the elites presume, out of mind. 

But that still leaves us with 65-70 percent of the population who are not quite ready to accept the reality of the intense disdain our predatory government and corporate elites have for them, and who still want to believe, in some measure, in the possibility of justice and dignity under the rules of the game as currently constituted. 

If the elite game with the openly pissed-off cohort of the population involves the forced disappearance of their social reality and their feelings of anguish, the one with this much larger and potentially more troublesome group revolves around the gradual anesthetization of their inherent desire to dream of better outcomes. 

And that is why they are doing everything in their power to discourage among us the age-old practice of looking into the eyes of others and listening mindfully to their take on the world, for they know that doing so forges bonds of empathy and links of complicity that have the potential to catalyze the creation of new social and political institutions more capable of sustaining our hopes of a more dignified life. 

I don’t know about you, but I never asked for “contact-free” service at restaurants and stores, or the ever-inefficient “efficiency” of online apps and bots rather than human beings when it comes to solving business and bureaucratic problems. Or being protected from the contamination possibilities of my fellow human beings through Plexiglas screens and useless, personality robbing masks. 

Rather, I have and always will seek contact-rich engagements with full face visibility and full vocal expression in all my social encounters because, like Vinicius, I understand the immense generative power of these things. 

I know that if I hadn’t been effectively forced into sometimes challenging engagements with widely varying people in crazily diverse social settings in these full-frontal ways I probably would have forever remained an only slightly less anxious version of the often timorous young adolescent I was.

And had I not grown in confidence through those experiences, I would never have gained my now enormous trust in the life-enriching power of serendipity; that is, how, if you give others the slightest opening for communication, you will find out surprising, if not near miraculous things about them and their life trajectories, stories that, like our dialogues with nature, tend to fill us with awe and enhance our trust in the power of human agency and resilience. 

Our current elites appear, unfortunately, to be more aware of all this than are most of us. 

And this is why they seek to mask our children, fill them with germophobic dread, and promote having them before screens filled with garbage content before they’ve ever has the chance to listen silently and without distraction to the birds as they wake up on a summer morning, or sit at a dinner table with people from different generations and different points of view, and learn about the inherent complexity, as well as the frequent hapless folly (great for learning tolerance!), of human relations. 

They want, in short, that our young never really become aware of the art of the encounter and the enormous power and suppleness it can bring to their lives. 

No, they want them incurious, history-less and feeling inert as they trudge along in the well laid-out chutes leading to the land of UBI and regularly scheduled injectable “enhancements” that will seamlessly insure that they can more efficiently serve the grand designs of those “experts” who, of course, understand better than they ever could the real reasons why each of them were put on this earth. 

And these hubristic social engineers will succeed in much of this unless the rest of us forcibly reclaim the art of the encounter in our own lives, and perhaps more importantly in our interactions with those in the generations following in our wake. 

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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