Thinking of You: On Grace

by Michael Abraham

The shower is running. It has just begun to steam up the little bathroom in my little apartment, and I reach into it, turn the dial from all-the-way-hot to almost-all-the-way-hot. I step into the spray of the water, and I discover that, instead of almost-all-the-way-hot, I have turned the dial to nearly-tepid. I turn it back toward all-the-way-hot, and, almost immediately, I feel it scald my chest. I fuss with it. I fuss back and forth with the dial in my shower, and, as I do so, I think of you, whoever you are, whoever you are reading this essay or whoever you are who is not reading this essay and never will. I think of you, out there, in your bathroom, taking a shower in the early afternoon on a lazy day off, fussing with the dial or the handles or whatever contraption it is that controls the heat in your shower, finding yourself now scalded, now freezing. I think of you, of how we have this experience in common—this bare, quotidian experience that means nothing on its surface, that is easily forgotten in the moments after it happens, for it happens so frequently and with such little fanfare. I am thinking of you as I pick up the bar soap and soap my body. I wonder if you use bar soap, too, or if you are a shower gel kind of person. I feel fairly confident we share the experience of shampoo, but I reflect that not everyone conditions as I condition my hair. When I step out of the shower and am met with a bathroom that feels much more bracingly cold than it did when I stepped into it, I think of you as well, at how the hairs on your arms raise just like mine.

You see, I have been thinking of you a lot these days. I have been thinking of all the small, seemingly menial things that happen to me that also happen to you, of the way you swear under your breath when you burn the rice—how you cut your finger on the corner of the page of a book—how you are enchanted for a moment by a gust of wind and brought back to memories of playing in leaves as a child—how you make too much coffee and then drink too much coffee and then find yourself with a stomach ache and a buzzing mind.

I put on my favorite robe to go sit on my porch and smoke a cigarette, midway through writing this paragraph, and I think of you, of how you have a favorite robe or, if not a favorite robe, a favorite jacket that warms just right underneath the arms and across the shoulders. My life has slowed down a great deal as of late. It has grown slow and idle and a little bit lonely, and in the slow, lonely space of my life, I have begun to imagine you everywhere. It does not comfort me to imagine you; I do not do it because I need the spectral presence of another in my quiet days. I don’t know why I have begun to imagine you, but I have, putzing around your kitchen and cleaning the mirror above the sink in your bathroom and deciding that the sheets can go one more day before being washed.

I think that most of us, most of the time, feel ourselves to be very special, very unique, very unlike others. I don’t think that most of us would admit to feeling this way because it sounds pretentious and high-minded to think of oneself as set apart from others. But I think that most of us, most of the time, are quite obsessed with the idea of our particularity. And perhaps we should be. What is particular about us, what makes us distinct from those around us, is that which we contribute to the human question. Our particularities make complexity of our species; they give us value and interest. However, I have become increasingly interested in particularity’s opposite—in banality, in everydayness, in commonness. I have become increasingly interested in the possibility that most of what happens to me happens to other people all of the time, that most of the sensations in my body and the thoughts in my head are, in fact, not original at all, that they are shared by others.

I am teaching a class this semester that, among other things, asks my students to engage, now and again, in utopian thinking, in the work of imagining what a perfect or at least more perfect world might look like. Early on in the class, I asked them to write a paragraph in which they defined a just world. The class devolved into a marvelous debate over the definition of justice and the possibility of policing it in a way that contributes to the flourishing of all. The question stuck in my head, has riddled with me since late September. What is it, precisely, that would make a world good?

As I think of you in the shower this afternoon, I think about this question of a good world, of a just world, of a utopia, and I hazard to guess that such a world involves a reorientation of our ideas of subjecthood and otherness. The West has, for so long, been so obsessed with the idea of the specialness of the subject. I think that obsession comes from the idea of a soul. Now, I believe in the notion of the soul—something that puts me terribly at odds with the good secularists whom I call my colleagues in academia—but I don’t think that the soul necessarily means that we are unique in ourselves. There is this idea baked paradigmatically into Westernness that is so hard to shake, this idea that each subject is fundamentally singular and that no subject shares in the singularity which this particular subject enjoys. The ethic that follows from that idea is all about protecting the particularity, the specialness of the subject, ensuring that nothing even imaginarily violates the idea that the situated self is entirely not substitutable, that no two selves are alike at their fundament. But what if one were to flip the ethic entirely? What if, instead of protecting the specialness of the subject, one were to celebrate and revel in the banality of the subject, in how precisely knowable it is most of the time? What if the good world begins with the recognition that we all scald ourselves in the shower sometimes? What if the good world emerges from the idea that very few things which happen to any of us are all that meaningful until one pulls back from the perspective of particular subjects and looks at generalities, looks at just how immensely shared human experience is?

I think a question like this one has important stakes. I was recently on a vacation with my mother, and, one night, we got into a long and searching and somewhat contentious conversation about my inability to find common ground, politically speaking, with members of my extended family. At the time, having this conversation, I had plenty of ready-made answers for why what I consider the thanatic politics of some of my family members are impossible to accept or reconcile. And I still believe that. But, as I was showering today and thinking of you, I realized that you probably have lots of opinions with which I disagree, that you might even disagree with my very existence, that we might hate each other vehemently were we to meet in a bar or a coffee shop and really talk about what we believed. And, then, I reflected on the fact that the good world, the just world, the utopia—well, it has to include you in it, too, just as it has to include me in it. Building the good world is an immense problem for just this reason: it has to include everyone who is already in the world; it has to include you and you and you. And I, as a queer man, don’t know how to build with a lot of the people in the world today. I don’t know how to build with them because we do not want to build the same world. And, so, politics is war, and the field of sociality gets riven through by the scars of warfare, and no one is safe from the opinions of anyone. But, hauntingly, yearningly, the good world hangs in our imaginations—in yours as much as in mine—and tantalizes us, promises us that it is possible to have it.

In that conversation I had with my class about the just world, one of my students argued that the just world is impossible to achieve unless some higher power comes down from its celestial seat and instructs us in how to be good to one another, in what it is that is right and what it is that is wrong and how we go about policing the distinction. This may very well be the case. It may very well be true that there is nothing good that can come of the world—nothing truly and lastingly good—that we can bring forth with our own hands. But I am an optimist and a little bit utopian, and I have to believe, in contravention of my student’s well reasoned pessimism, that there is, within us, the capacity to build the good world, to belong alongside and to one another in meaningful ways that contribute to my flourishing as much as they do to yours. And I am beginning to think that such a project, such an immense labor of building, begins by acknowledging the striking commonality of so much of what we experience in the flow of the everyday. I think that it might begin with grace, with the kind of radical grace that only emerges from the recognition that, between you and me, there is more shared than not.

Grace is a funny thing. I used to hate the word because I grew up Christian, and grace is Christianity’s favorite hypocrisy, its supposedly supreme value which it practices so rarely. Because of its religious connotations, people in the secular circles in which I run use the word grace very rarely. But wouldn’t the good world be animated by just such a value? Isn’t grace what makes the good world possible in the first place? If the conundrum of the good world is that we must live together despite the immensity of difference that defines the spaces between us, wouldn’t grace be our tutor in learning to value our commonalities? The best world I can imagine is one in which we celebrate difference loudly and often, but that world also seems very, very far off. Rather than the best world I can imagine, the good one that will do for me is one in which we honestly and enthusiastically celebrate the fact that we all sometimes forget to turn the stove off. Perhaps this seems politically flaccid to you, but, to me, it seems like the kernel of a revolutionary way of thinking. I have spent most of my life swearing I would never find common ground and common cause with those who wish my friends and me harm for being who we are or believing what we believe, but, recently, I have begun to wonder what would happen if I did. And I wonder further what would happen if I did so radically, without an agenda—not intending to change their minds but merely to demonstrate to them and to myself that there is a lot more that we share than that we do not. Perhaps grace is our tutor in love; perhaps the recognition of our commonality, our banality, our everydayness as subjects is the bridge to the world in which we come to celebrate and glory in our differences. Perhaps the reorientation I am proposing could make, of mortal enemies, respectful neighbors.

I don’t know anything really about the answer to the question of a good world. I only know that it seems we get further from it every day. And, so, for now, I am going about my life, and I am thinking of you.