The neglect of the "I"

(from the introduction of In search of the human face, by Msgr. Luigi Giussani, 1995)

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The supreme obstacle on our human journey is “neglect” of the “I”; whereas the first step of a truly human journey – the concern for our own “I”–is the exact opposite of that “neglect.”

It might seem obvious that one should have this interest but in fact it is not obvious at all. Just think of all those gaping voids that open up in the daily fabric of our consciousness and our frequent distraction. Indeed, the constituent factors of the human “subject” cannot be identified in abstract terms. They are not some kind of “prejudice” but can be clearly seen when our “I” is in action, when the subject is engaged with reality.

The word “I” hides great confusion today and yet my primary concern is understanding what my subject really is. For my subject is at the core, at the root of all my actions (even a thought is an action). And actions are the dynamics by which I enter into relationships with people and things. If I neglect my “I,” it will be impossible for my relationships with life to be my own, for life itself (the sky, a woman, a friend, music) to be mine. To be able to say the word my in a serious way we must have a clear perception of the constitution of our “I”. Nothing is as fascinating as the discovery of the real dimensions of our “I.” Nothing is as full of surprises as the discovery of our own human face. 

And nothing is as moving as the fact that God became man to become the definitive aid, the discreet companion, lovingly tender but powerful, to each one of us as we struggle in the search for our own human face. God shows his paternity not just because He generates all things and because He holds destinies and circumstances in His dominion, but especially because He is by our side, an unforeseen and unforeseeable companion to each of us on his journey of growth in the form of his destiny.

The first point to make at the start of any serious enquiry into the constitution of our subject is that the confusion reigning today behind the fragile mask (a flatus vocis, almost) of our “I” comes partly from an influence extraneous to us. We must not forget the decisive influence which “the world,” as the Gospel calls it, has over us and which is the enemy of the stable, dignified and solid formation of a human personality. The world around us (through the mass media, school or politics) exerts a lot of pressure that conditions and eventually encumbers–as a prejudice encumbers–any attempt we make to become aware of our “I.” Paradoxically we are always ready to react, to rear up in anger, if someone steps on our toes on the bus or at school. But if it happens, and it does happen, that our personality, our “I,” is totally crushed, suppressed in the true sense or so intimidated that it seems stunned, we calmly submit every day.

The consequence of this oppression or intimidation is evident: for the vast majority, the very word “I” now conjures up a confused, fluctuating notion. It’s just a word we use for the sake of convenience and its value is purely indicative (like “bottle” or “glass”). Behind that tiny word nothing vibrant remains, nothing that with potency and clarity could indicate the type of conception and feeling a man might have of the value of his “I.”

For this reason, one could say that we are living at a time when civilization seems to be ending: for a civilization only evolves to the degree that the value of every single “I” is helped to emerge and become clear. We are living in an age that fosters great confusion about the content of the word “I.”

The inevitable and, literally, tragic consequence of this confusion in which the reality of the “I” dissolves, is the “dissolution” of the word “you.” Man today does not know how to address anyone consciously as “you.” And here lies the ultimate and apparently hidden root of the violence and pursuit of power that largely determine people’s everyday relationships. Their basis is the systematic reduction of the other person to the level of something to possess and use, the total absence of wonder or the experience of being moved by the other person’s existence.