Terry Warner, in his book Bonds That Make Us Free, said:
We are constantly receiving signals from others that reveal something of their needs and hopes and fears. Martin Buber expressed this idea in these words: ‘Living means being addressed.’ We are called upon by others’ unspoken requests, expressed in their faces and gestures and voices, to treat them with consideration and respect. … To be a person in a family or community is to pick up from others such gently expressed imperatives as these.1
In other words, there is a part of us that is “sensitive to the reality of others,”1 just as our eyes are sensitive to light. The unspoken messages we receive from others and the call to treat them humanely come from outside of us, and we can choose to respond to these moral promptings or we can resist them. When we respond to these moral promptings, we do so genuinely and, from an external vantage point, spontaneously. We have all had moments where we just felt that something was right to do. For example, I recently gave a friend a hug because I felt that she needed it. On another occasion, when I thought about my mom cleaning the kitchen, I just felt as though I should take out the trash so she wouldn’t have to.
After these moments, if we are asked why we acted as we did, we can sometimes provide a rationale for our actions, but other times we cannot … we just did what we felt was right. When we can provide a rationale, we recognize that our rationale was not what prompted our actions, but only a way to explain them afterward.
The use of the tactile verb felt in the phrase “I did what I felt was right” implies a moral sense, a sense of what we should or shouldn’t do in a given situation. Similar to any of our biological sense organs, I believe that this moral sense reacts to the external signals we receive from others. This, I believe, is the same means through which God can communicate His will to us by personal revelation.
When we resist the moral call to treat others responsibly, we do them wrong, and we can’t just ignore it. Our very natures are constituted such that we feel we have to justify our actions. Rationalizations, excuses, and justifications are all given in response to a feeling that something is wrong within us, that we have done something wrong. We would feel no need to justify (straighten) our actions if we did not, at some level, recognize that they were bent. We are not often conscious of our attempt to hide our wrongdoing. In fact, Warner argues, the very way we see the world shifts and changes in such a way as to justify our actions. We no longer see people as they really are, but in such a way that makes us “right” in mistreating them. Even our emotions reflect and adopt this defensive posture and accuse others of wrongdoing with anger, malice, and irritation. Our entire way of being changes according to our moral response to others.
This personal, moral, and social estrangement from others is a direct consequence of resisting our moral sense to treat them as we should. Because Warner considers these moral promptings a recognition of someone else’s humanity, he calls the way we experience the world when we resist these moral promptings the inhumane way of being, and he calls the way we experience the world when we respond truthfully to these moral promptings the humane way of being. We are constantly shifting back and forth between these two discrete ways of being, he says, depending upon our response to the moral needs of those around us.
Continued in “Poking Our Own Eyes Out”
1. Terry Warner, Bonds that Make Us Free (Ann Arbor, MI: Shadow Mountain, 2001), p. 130.