Answering the Knock of Relationship

By Liam Atchison

Copyright © 1995 Mars Hill Review 3 Fall 1995 · Issue No. 3: pgs 42-49.

On a recent trip overseas, my flight from England to the United States was delayed twenty-four hours by a faulty cargo bay door. The nature and length of the delay was not communicated immediately to me or the other 350 passengers, and so we spent most of the day on a roller coaster of heightened and dashed expectations in the Manchester airport, at some moments believing our departure was imminent, but eventually ending up in a local hotel for the night.

The inconvenience of a delayed flight provided an opportunity that is rare in the regular world of air travel. Otherwise perfect strangers became sharers in a common unpleasant experience, and in the course of the day I became acquainted with about ten of my fellow travelers. Indeed, our group became a clique bound by our anger, frustration, and disappointment at postponed reunions and, for some, lost income.

Anger toward an airline is not the stuff of which lasting relationships are made. But I developed an interest in a number of the members of my "group." To me, they were very interesting people. One shy man was an international skydiving champion. I had to practically drag this information out of him, but soon others were as intrigued with him as I was, and he showed us the gold medal from his most recent competition. Another man was the self-confident head of a successful trucking company in a western state. An immigrant, he thrilled me with the story of how he came to the United States with nothing and built a fortune by hard work and determination. I met a kind and generous man who made his living writing about antebellum life in the South. As he freely offered his recently acquired Yorkshire chocolates and a pleasant smile, he seemed to embody the graciousness of the gentle plantation lifestyle from bygone days of which he was an expert. A particularly angry young woman was a southern debutante returning from her first trip to Europe on her own (a rite of passage for high society women as she explained). With neither apology nor embarrassment, she betrayed her inner fear as she gave us quite a detailed account of what her father would do to the airline as punishment for treating his "little girl" this way. A half-dozen other stories were just an intriguing as these; I found the mixture of personalities was as delicious as an Agatha Christie mystery. All we needed was a murder to fully exploit the situation.

There was no murder, thank goodness, but the shared experience of a delayed flight for me became a venue of loneliness. Though I discovered many fascinating (and not a few disturbing) things about my comrades, they discovered nothing about me. There have been many times in my life when I have refused to disclose myself to others, but this was not one of them. I longed to share something of myself with these people, but apparently not one of them was interested enough to ask anything of me. I do not recall that I was bitter about this, but several times in my increasing loneliness I almost began to talk about myself anyway, without invitation. However, I resisted the temptation and instead waited for an invitation-which never came. Not only did none of my fellow passengers know my name, they didn't know that I was a university professor or that I occasionally wrote studies for this excellent journal.

The jet finally got off the ground and landed in Atlanta-a full day late. I remember leaving the plane and my companions with a strange sense of relief. It had felt like hard work to learn so much about the lives of others who shared a common stressful experience with me, and yet wait in vain for them to ask something of me. It felt like waiting alone in a room for a knock that never came.

The joy of reunion with my loved ones dissipated the loneliness I had felt. My family and friends seemed genuinely interested in my travels and my ordeal. But this contrast caused me to realize how greatly I suffer from a lack of curiosity about others and even about myself. I yearn for others to be curious about me. I wonder how much of the rich textures of life I miss by not being appropriately curious about others.

What is Curiosity?

"Curiosity killed the cat," according to the old saw, but I suspect this timeworn phrase does not actually influence our lack of curiosity about others. I have chosen to use the word curious to describe an attitude that accompanies meaningful engagement in the lives of others. To understand this, we must consider definitions of curiosity.

Curiosity is a subjective quality of persons whereby they are eager to learn. As in the case of the proverbial cat, this eagerness can have the bad connotation of putting our nose into a matter for which we have no invitation. It is none of our business, and to enter it is to violently impose ourselves upon others. In this case curiosity is more akin to voyeurism. This pushy inquisitiveness is the enjoyment of something best left a secret to the one seeking information. This may be illustrated from another conversation during the flight delay: In the course of answering a surface question I put to him about his career, an acquaintance on the airplane mentioned in passing that he had been divorced. The comment was not an invitation for me to probe, but rather represented information that helped him to answer my question. Now undoubtedly the events leading to his divorce are important to a deep understanding of this man's life, but I was not invited to engage with him at that level. In fact, I did not even know his name. It was understood that this was not fair game for discussion. In the moment we talked, I felt no real curiosity and there was no reason to probe further at this incipient and probably final stage of our brief relationship. My limited curiosity was served by his simple and straightforward answer to an innocent question.

Further, there can be a curiosity about oneself that is unhealthy. People are so curious about themselves that their obsessions make them narcissistic and overly dependent.

There is a curiosity which displays good qualities. Curiosity about natural laws have characterized the great scientists and inventors. Curiosity about God has characterized seekers of all kinds throughout the centuries. It is this kind of curiosity that I wish to display, particularly as it is directed healthily toward others. I did not mention curiosity toward myself first because I believe we will begin to ask the appropriate questions about ourselves when we begin with healthy curiosity about God and others.

Curiosity in the Moment of Creative Tension

I was recently asked to help decide a personnel matter for a Christian organization. A man was under consideration for a people-oriented position in the organization, and it was my task to meet with him and several other people on a panel to determine if he was right for the job. The man applying for the opening began our meeting with a polite but lengthy speech about his qualifications. After he was finished, one of my fellow panelists commented to the man that he seemed very "stiff and machinelike" in presenting his accomplishments, and that this was not appropriate to the position he sought. She pointed out that the applicant was obviously a good man, but based on his presentation he did not seem to be the kind of individual who could work well with people. With a surprised look on his face, the man said he thought the panelist was wrong and proceeded to make another speech about his qualifications. He had not calculated this kind of interruption.

When he had finished his second speech, I decided to bring him back to the original question. I told him that his lack of curiosity about the comment made by the other panelist may have indeed revealed something about his qualifications for the job. I wondered why he hadn't even thought to ask what the panelist meant when she called him stiff and machinelike. Was he not interested in how we experienced him? Since it was our job to offer honest feedback as well as fill the position, our observations presented a rare opportunity to for him to see himself as others saw him.

The applicant now showed a late interest in his robotic performance. Whether he was genuinely interested in feedback for future reference or "playing the interview game" by giving the answer he thought we wanted to hear, I do not know. But he had the opportunity to be healthily curious about himself by being curious about the perception of others. However he capitalized on his uncomfortable experience, I think it was very instructive because it brought about a moment of tension.

The panelist's observation about the applicant's stiffness provided an opportunity for his personal growth by introducing a creative tension. Moments of creative tension are often accompanied by silence, which serves as a backdrop against which personal issues are clearly delineated. In this case, the applicant must have felt he had lost control of the interview when a distracting observation about his stiffness was raised. Silence followed for only a moment because the applicant was presented with a vacuum that had to be filled. He should have replaced the vacuum of silence with curiosity that further engaged the observer for his own benefit. For example, he could have demonstrated curiosity by thinking to ask what the panelist meant. Instead, he filled the vacuum with defensive chatter. The moment of opportunity was lost because he stuffed the crack of silence with the putty of droned self-explanation, a defensive self-justification. This defense included the cavalier undervaluing of the panelist's feelings, which the applicant inappropriately judged to be "wrong". The dismissal of the panelist's feelings as clearly exposed a defensive attitude on the part of the applicant.

Danish philosopher SØren Kierkegaard said that when a person uses this kind of chatter, he or she refuses to engage in the creative tension of relationships, which can bring about good change. In fact, by chattering rather than being silent in curiosity, the applicant siphoned away the essential meaning of the Christian organization to which he applied, which is to be an organization which listens-to God.

What is it to chatter? It is the annulment of the passionate disjunction between being silent and speaking. Only the person who can remain essentially silent can speak essentially, can act essentially.{1}

Presence: Inviting Curiosity

Earlier I mentioned that there is an unhealthy curiosity which is closer to voyeurism. Indeed, curiosity without relationship is voyeurism: I withhold myself from you and gaze. Conversely, curiosity with relationship is presence. By presence I do not mean mere physical proximity or coexistence with someone else; I mean that my being is brought fully into the moment with another person. All my attention is at the disposal of the one with whom I share that moment of time.

The unusual experience of receiving such curiosity is so infrequently experienced in a fallen world that the reaction to offered presence is instructive in itself. Such presence is like a knock on the door of one's soul. If the knock is answered with mutual curiosity, there is communion, a sweet taste of the fellowship for which we were created. In the case of the job applicant the knock was unanswered-just as it often is in the counseling office, at the dinner table, in the church sanctuary. The panelist was beneficially present by reporting her experience of the applicant. The applicant may have been startled by this presence, either because it was hateful to him in its exposure of something he thought to hide, or because he was used to coexistence in relationship rather than to presence. Gabriel Marcel has said that the goal of offering presence is to bring about encounter:

Encounter can only be accomplished at the level of presence. If it is to be an authentic encounter, it cannot be limited to coexistence at a particular point in a particular moment. Such coexistence is only a matter of "being there." There is true encounter only if there is being with.{2}

Mere coexistence in relationship is what occurs when one is physically in a room, but does not participate creatively with the other. The word participate is meaningful here because in order to participate with others, to be present, we must cross the artificial barriers we have erected between ourselves and others.

Participation is made concrete and meaningful through curiosity. In the case of the interview, the panelist creatively participated in presence with the applicant rather than choosing simply to coexist. Coexistence would have taken the form of questions which are important, such as "What is your experience?" or "How would you do such and such?" The panelist's presence, however, went to more meaningful places in the applicant's existence by seeking to understand his experience in that moment. This seeking is curiosity. The panelist might easily have said, literally, "At this moment your interview is telling us something about you that perhaps you want to hide from us but cannot. And if you cannot hide this here and now, what must you be like toward your wife and family, who must endure your pose when you are not seeking to impress them at all?" This is presence, because it fully engages with another in the moment by refusing to ignore the obvious. It is creative, because it opens the door of opportunity for one to deceive oneself no longer. When the pose of competence to manage one's own life fails, one can only turn in dependence to God. Curiosity flourishes when presence is seen as a gift that bridges the gap created by loneliness; but it dies when placed on the cold hearth of self-protection.

Curiosity and the Battle for the Soul

The offering of the gift of presence to another so that he or she might have an opportunity to respond with curiosity is the vocation of fearless warriors. People mistake the gentle knocking of relationship for the attack of an enemy rather than the wounds of a friend. To choose to be present for another calls for courage and perseverance because one actually is engaged in the battle for a soul.

No one battles more for my soul by offering presence and inviting curiosity than my wife. When I told my wife the story of my delayed flight and the profound sense of loneliness I felt, a knowing smile passed kindly over her face. The lack of curiosity I received from my travel companions was very much like the lack of curiosity that at times I have demonstrated toward my wife when she has knocked on the door of my soul. Often she has lovingly highlighted the obvious in my life, only to be kept (as have others) at arm's length. Rather than respond with curiosity, I have often sought to eradicate the silence of tension between us by insistent defensiveness: "I'm not like that at all...I have been misunderstood...let me explain my position." I never raise my voice; with cool logic and lengthy explanations I bludgeon the very one who does battle for me. Safe behind the door of my soul, I often answer the knock of relationship with an angry snarl.

No, offering presence to invite curiosity is not for the faint of heart. The person who makes himself or herself available often pays dearly. I remember the quip of a middle-aged woman as we sat in the airport terminal, so far from home, and so far from one another: "This is hell," she said. How I shared that sentiment!

I realized that what I longed for on that plane in Manchester was someone to answer my knock with a healthy curiosity. I tasted my own medicine; I experienced what it felt like to live in a world where few answer the knock of freely offered relationship. How great is the love of God that he would send the Creator himself to a people who were without curiosity. How wonderful is the One who would dare to intrude our defensive indifference and pay such a price to offer a relationship to us.

Jesus said, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock…"

{1} Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), 97.

{2} Gabriel Marcel, “Reply to Gene Reeves,” The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel ( LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1984), 273-274.