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Who is my neighbor?

Some months ago, a woman wrote to me out of the blue. She said she'd finished a Ph.D. in philosophy and mentioned her love of meditating, green tea, and her child. I couldn't understand much of what she had written. There were words with which I was unfamiliar, whole phrases that were grammatically correct yet opaque, a style I can only describe as unique. I thought it was poetry. I thought she was a man.

For some time after that, silence. Then, in a cascade of emails I received from her in early February, she referred to her "vagina-face" having been "cut"; to grave "spiritual offenses" wrought upon her by Dr. Levy and Dr. Newsome by "reflecting and projecting"; to following in the Davidic line; to a son abused by "reflecting and projecting" as well as a friend dead; to bleeding, sexual misuse, and persecution. In a lucid moment that departed sharply from the rest, she wrote, "Do you have a person that will help me as I fear I am losing my mind, and slowly going insane? I may already have schizophrenia, hearing their voices."

What does it mean to be good neighbor? Have I, as Jesus advises the "expert in the law" (Luke 10:25-37), acted like the Good Samaritan? This woman came to me and as I learned more about her I grew afraid. I am not living in a rural midwestern town anymore and not everyone is as wholesome as my sanguine mother once led me to believe. Was Victoria a threat to my fiancee Alexandra and me? Would I become part of her alternate reality, another of the philosophy professors "reflecting and projecting" on this "modest woman" and Christian mother? What could I do for her anyway?

Instinctively, I set up a filter on my email. I tried to forward her messages to an old email account. It didn't matter. Gmail doesn't block emails, only redirects them. A copy of any email I received from her would be stored in my Trash or Spam folder for 30 days. It would be there, remaining. I would see it if I looked. And, in such a case, whose curiosity wouldn't get the better of him?

More arrived.

I didn't know what to do, so I wrote to a psychologist friend, a man who has worked with clients with schizophrenia, and asked for his advice. I thought of asking whether he would be willing to speak to her but after further consideration thought otherwise, not wishing to entangle my friend, a man living in Scotland, in this woman's life and not sure that she would trust this stranger anyway.

For some reason, she trusted me.

I kept silence and for months after the first spate of emails only received a couple more, having fished them out of my Trash folder and put them back in. One was sent to an Evangelical church in the US (with me CC'd). Another was sent to a group of Canadian philosophers at one university, where, I surmised, she may have once taught as an adjunct lecturer. Maybe that would be the end of the supplication, and this period of my life would, in time, become an "odd memory" or "that weird thing that happened some years ago."

I remember vividly that it was Wednesday, February 10, 2016, when Alexandra and I were listening to Ivan Illich interpret the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The date is fixed in memory because we were driving to Santa Barbara to attend an Ash Wednesday event while listening to David Cayley's interview with Ivan Illich in a CBC series entitled The Corruption of Christianity. Fittingly, the theme of this Ash Wednesday was mercy.

The story of the good Samaritan should by now be very familiar to most of us. A "man of the law" is testing Jesus concerning what he should do to be worthy of achieving eternal life and Jesus has him recite the law. Love God and love your neighbor. But this man pushes further, trying Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers him by telling a parable:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. "Look after him," he said, "and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have."

In The Corruption of Christianity, Illich takes the story of the Good Samaritan to be the crux of the radical Gospel message. Each of us is free to choose whether we see this man whom we do not know as our neighbor, this man lying on the side of the road before us, is free to decide whether to pick him up and carry him away. But this also implies that we're free to neglect him, to pass him by as others have done before, to leave him for someone else or some other agency to deal with.

What is at once poignant, horrible, and arguably true about the history Illich wants to tell is that modernity is precisely that "betrayal," that "corruption" of the Gospel, for it is in our age when such a man would be taken up into and treated by a system. If he is deemed "mentally ill," then there is one system for him. If hungry, then another. If physically sick, then another. If homeless, then another. If out of work, then another still. Caritas, a kind of love, has become charity, hospitality in its ancient sense now just "checking in." Surely, some system or other will take care of him and if not this one, then necessarily that one. We--those on all sides of the political spectrum ranging from the left to the right--do not dare to ask whether none will or whether all who are so taken up, even when the system "works" as it should, shall be dehumanized in the process.

Let us dwell with Illich a little longer. Here is only a piece of Illich's interpretation, an excerpt from David Cayley's The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich:

Several years ago, during my annual lecture series at the University of Bremen, I took the Samaritan as my theme because my students had asked me if I would discus ethics. What I tried to point out to them was the suggestion in this story that we are creatures that find our perfection only by establishing a relationship, and that this relationship may appear arbitrary from everybody else's point of view, because I do it in response to a call and not a category, in this case the call of the beaten-up Jew in the ditch. This has two implications. The first is that this "ought" is not, and cannot be reduced to a norm. It has a telos. It aims at somebody, some body; but not according to a rule. It has become almost impossible for people who today deal with ethics or morality to think in terms of relationships rather than rules. The second implication, and a point I'll develop more fully later on, is that with the creation of this new mode of existence, the possibility of its breakage also appears. And this denial, infidelity, turning away, coldness is what the New Testament calls sin, something which can only be recognized by the light of this new glimmer of mutuality. (51-52)

It is "this denial, infidelity, coldness" that marks out the failing ethical response of our time, and it is with this shudder at coldness that my story about this woman with schizophrenia resumes.

It's as if, over and over again, she'd been lying beside the road and calling my name while I kept coldly passing her by on the other side. Over and over again. Over and over and over again. Truly, I cannot deny that I have, while carrying her in my heart for months now, also sought to neglect her. Despite my strong pang of conscience which urges me to help anyone (any body) who writes to me in some way or another (something to which Alexandra can readily attest), have I not thought her unclean, bad news? What do I know about schizophrenia? As a philosopher, I speak with reasonable persons each day, those who think hard, seeking conceptual clarity. But plainly she's not reasonable. Besides, who is she to me? Not a family member, not a conversation partner, not a friend, not a flesh-and-blood neighbor, not even a fellow American. Is she mine? Whose is she? Come on now, wouldn't it just be easier to forget her, banishing her from my thoughts?

Except that she keeps writing, however intermittently, which she did again recently. This latest email, like the one before, was sent to members at a university, a different one, this note also containing a complaint about a "spiritual offense" and also concluding by asking for a donation. I was shocked to discover that one philosophical counselor to whom I'd referred her months ago had also become, in her mind, a perpetrator of spiritual offenses. There she was beside Dr. Levy and Dr. Newsome.

This time, though, I looked up the names of those included in the list of individuals to whom she had written and was immediately surprised to find that they were tenured professors of philosophy at that university. My conscience gnawed, my heart silently speaking an unbidden truth: this stranger is our neighbor. And so I wrote to those on the list to see whether we could think of something that could be done.

Dear fellow philosophers and members of philosophy departments,

A woman named Victoria Bledsoe wrote to me out of the blue a couple of months ago, and it wasn't clear to me then what she needed help with. I had only a brief exchange with her over email, some of what she had written being a "word salad."

Very sadly, it looks as if she has schizophrenia, she's clearly suffering immensely, and there's a question now of whether she may harm herself or, if she has a child, her child too.

I'm living in Southern California and do not know Victoria personally. Here, she's come to our front door (so to speak), and she could use our help. How do you think we can help this woman?

With kind regards,

Andrew Taggart

In an earlier draft, I had written--"Here, she's come to our front door (so to speak), and in that sense she's our neighbor"--but took out the part about the neighbor because I didn't want to put what could be a Levinasian, Buberian, or Christian interpretation on the encounter for fear of, even potentially, offending some of them. I sensed that they would draw the relevant inference.

Why write to them? I thought it possible that if she had adjuncted there, then there would (should) be some emergency contact on file. Days passed; then a week and a half. Neither those working in administration nor any of the professional philosophers have replied to date. I'm not sure that I had expected one but I had hoped for something.

The silence confirmed my suspicion that professional philosophers who write about ethical theory, meta-ethics, and political philosophy (and each of these professors did!) do not live their ethical views. I was saddened by their coldness, their denial, their infidelity first to this woman but second to philo-sophia (the loving pursuit of living wisely). Like me, they must have once thought, "Who is this woman to me? Is she part of my tribe? Isn't she bad news? I have too much on my plate already. Aren't there others who need my help more than she? Come now, this is, in the final analysis, simply a professional matter. Can't the system do something for her?" Yet, sadly, the more likely explanation is that they didn't think anything at all, didn't think of her.

They didn't see it as calling each of them to an ethical response, but in making that claim I do not blame them. I recall Illich: "It has become almost impossible for people who today deal with ethics or morality to think in terms of relationships rather than rules."

Some days later, I wrote to a neurosurgeon friend of man, an older man in his early 70s, asking him what, if anything, I could do. He wrote, "You might gently urge her to talk to a doctor and get headed in that direction [of seeing a psychiatrist]." But, I replied, "Is there any chance that 'gently urging' could backfire, making matters worse?" He replied, "It depends on how bad she is. Schizophrenics have chaotic minds. I doubt that she will take the advice, but offering it is unlikely to make her worse. She'll [likely] just ignore it."

I concluded that it wouldn't likely hurt and could possibly help to gently urge her. I did so a few days ago later on April 19, 2016, at that time some four months after she'd initially written to me, trying to find the right words, some of which were hers, in the hope of reaching her:

Dear Victoria,

Over the last couple of months, I've received some emails from you in which you convey a deep sense of distress. I'm very sorry to hear of your suffering.

In one email, you wrote, "I may already have schizophrenia, hearing their voices." It seems that that may be true. I imagine you're living somewhere in Canada. I wonder: can you speak with someone you trust, a family member, doctor, or priest you feel comfortable with, about what you're going through in order to see what sort of help could be offered you?

I'm sorry that I can do no more to help, but I hope that you're able to find peace and healing in time.

In peace,

Andrew Taggart

I have not heard from her yet.


As of this writing (December 2016), I have received no further emails from her. I have thought of her since, and the exchange has, in some small way, changed me.

Andrew Taggart is a Ph.D.-trained practical philosopher and entrepreneur. About five years ago, he started a successful philosophy practice, which involves speaking daily over Skype about the nature of a good life with individuals living around the world. Once a resident of New York City, he now lives with his fiancee Alexandra in Southern California.
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Title Annotation:CULTURE
Author:Taggart, Andrew
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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