Seven Laws of Unique Self Encounter: #4 – “You Never Know” by Marc Gafni

The following is an excerpt from Your Unique Self: The Radical Path to Personal Enlightenment by Dr. Marc Gafni.  For the other 6 laws, see other posts on this site or Chapter 21 of the book–which is available for purchase here.

SEEN FROM ONE PERSPECTIVE, life is a series of encounters with other human beings. Of these encounters, the ones that are most profound, pleasurable, and transformative are Unique Self encounters.  The following is one of seven core rules that define a Unique Self encounter:

c. 2011 photo used courtesy of lobster20.

c. 2011 photo used courtesy of lobster20.

4. You never  know.

The goal of Unique Self consciousness  is to fully receive and be received in deep understanding and empathy. Yet how often are we simply unable to understand one another? Receiving each other becomes next to impossible because of distance, strangeness, hurry, deafness, carelessness, or inevitable differences in the languages of our Unique Selves. Try as we might, the Unique Selves of so many people are ultimately unknowable to us—just like the Unique Self of God.

Are we to give up, or is there a path of receiving what is true even when you cannot fully grasp the Unique Self of other? And is there a way that an other can honor you in your Unique Self even if they cannot fully receive you in understanding and empathy? Is there a way to receive what seems so unreceivable, whether human or divine? This quandary inspires one of the more subtle ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval writer who did so much to define Christianity, and of Moses Maimonides, perhaps the most important Jewish philosopher of the last thousand years.

For theologians like Aquinas and Maimonides and many others past and present, the very essence of God is God’s incommunicability. According to these two medieval philosophers, God is unknowable. In the language of one scholar, “If I knew him, I would be him.” And yet at the same time, they held that the summum bonum of human existence is to know God.

But how can you know the one who is not knowable?  Aquinas and Maimonides proposed an ingenious solution, which they called via negativa or “the affirmation of not knowing”—that is, we know God in acknowledging that we do not know God. In the words of one of French writer Edmond Jabès’s characters, “I know you, Lord, in the measure that I do not know you.”

It is in the same way the Unique Self mystics teach that we receive another even if we do not know them; the Unique Self encounter takes place through the affirmation of not knowing.

For years, I thought the “affirmation of not knowing” was a classic example of irrelevant if clever medieval  sophistry. Until on a rare stormy day in Jerusalem, I made my way through the rain to the small neighborhood grocer right next to my house to pick up some essentials for my bad-weather hibernation. A gust of smoke greeted me at the door. The source of the noxious fumes, I soon found out, was a swarthy-faced middle-aged man, loitering in my corner store! Shirt open to the chest, large gold necklace and all, he stood there smoking his 9 a.m. cigar.

Coughing and fanning my way through his smoke, I mumbled to the grocer my consternation at the torrential rains that had soaked me through and through, trying to hide my growing annoyance at this  obviously uncouth and obnoxious loiterer.

And then, ever so slowly, the man with the gold necklace turned and looked at me—I promise—with the gentlest look you could possibly imagine. All his features suddenly appeared handsome and majestic. The gold necklace seemed regal, the smoke sweet as an incense offering. “Don’t you know,” he said, “it’s raining today because a holy man has gone to his world.”

I felt like some gate had swung open inside of me. Something in my heart just fell open—I just wanted to reach out and hug him for being so beautiful. It was an epiphany pure and simple.

Only later when I got home and read the paper did I see that one of Jerusalem’s great mystics had in fact died that morning—the Rebbe of Gur, a Hasidic master and leader of a thriving community with origins in the Eastern European town of Gur, a community that had been virtually wiped out during the Holocaust. This master had slowly, painstakingly,  and with endless love, passion, and daring, rebuilt his community in Israel over the past forty years. The world felt darker without him.

I had totally misjudged the man at the grocer’s. I thought he was a boor—coarse and crass, involved only in his immediate needs. However, the shining beauty and the subtle and deep knowing on his face as he told me that a holy man had died let me know how superficial my vision had been. I had assumed I knew him, and I had not truly known him at all. I had not received him.

“You never know—you never know—you never know.” A Unique Self encounter is only possible in the felt humility of not knowing. And realizing that at the end of all knowing is—not knowing.

The temptation to label, categorize, dismiss, or otherwise try to put another person in a box is the desire for conquest through knowing. People in boxes threaten us less. Instead, we must seek to receive an other’s Unique Self, even as we are aware that the other remains mysterious to us, ultimately unknowable, just like God. We are called to honor the Unique Self by gently saying to ourselves, “You never know—you  never know—you never know.”3D-YourUniqueSelf-Cover

The remaining laws will be shared in future blog posts on this site. 

You can purchase the Your Unique Self book at Amazon.com.>>