As good as it gets: Self-Other encounter and the promise of outsidedness

In my blog on July 12 I published some material from a book I was writing in early 2012, on relational encounter and outsidedness (a Bakhtinian idea). The following is the second part of that blog and goes deeper into the idea of outsidedness itself, using the Jack Nicholson movie As Good As It Gets as a guide.

Outsidedness is the event of two fully-differentiated people making an intentional choice to be with and experience one another, and to provide the space for the other to be other. Outsidedness is born as two people encounter one another across lines of differentiation, and entrust themselves to one another’s otherness. Outsidedness is an event of knowing, an epistemological event, in which knowing is discovered outside the individual minds of those in the encounter. Knowing occurs between them and around them. In these moments, something occurs that draws a curtain back on knowing that cannot be experienced without the other.

Spatially, outsidedness is like a room. In science fiction terms it’s like a parallel universe. In my early thinking about outsidedness I pictured this other “dimension” as a world where love encounter was the primary way of knowing. Theologically, this is the new creation, creation post-resurrection (more on this later). The room of outsidedness is experienced when the parallel world breaks into this world of time and space—anywhere that love encounter happens in this world, within this matrix, with its rules and conventions.

More often, I think of outsidedness in terms of an event. The words I attach to it are more common in the field of relational therapy—words like fusion, boundaries, differentiation. As an event, outsidedness occurs as a dynamic interplay between competing expectations and boundaries, in the push and pull of a relational dance. The structural integrity of this dance is maintained by the counterbalance of compressional relational forces. These forces are like those required to slow a Formula 1 car travelling at 200mph. The key to heating the tyres and having enough downforce to slow the car is speed—the car must approach a corner at incredibly high speed to have any hope of slowing down. This same counterbalance occurs in encounter, and is necessary for outsidedness. A strong compulsion to be with, for example, meets an immoveable wall of differentiation. The collision between the two creates friction, so that the moment is charged and energised by these opposing forces. Despite the friction, there is a togetherness to which both people are committed. This is a dynamic event, the convergence of relational energy in the midst of reinforced and affirmed differences. The walls between them (differentiation) are maintained even as they are transformed. In this convergence, otherness is recognised, privileged and treasured. There is a refusal to accommodate needs and expectations and an innate resistance to fusion. The miraculous and the sacred element of this dynamic is experienced as a mutual relational committedness even as there is total freedom to resist the urge to see one another reflected in or defined by the relationship. There is something wonderfully vulnerable about a person who is entirely comfortable being a self without the other, and yet totally committed to presenting all of that self to the other. It ensures the other remains the other, and not a projection of my self. This means that what I meet in the other is not just an echo of who I am, but someone who is totally different. And this keeps the encounter from collapsing. This moment is Buber’s between-ness and present-ness, an event so immediate it is untainted by either the past (determinations) or the future (expectations), but is full of meaning and promise. It is the moment, I believe, that defines what it is to be a person-in-relation—what it is to be human.

In healthy relational encounter, any attempt I make to accommodate myself to the other’s otherness—to be anything other than what I am, to fuse, or to locate a self that is reflected in who the other is—the other resists. In response to this boundary, and relative to it, I become more differentiated, more authentically me. The other’s boundariedness helps shape who I am—it gives contours to my self. All the while, the other unconditionally accepts who I am, even as these contours take form. I am accepted precisely as my self, and I find that any need I have to try and be someone else becomes quite irrelevant. A remarkable and sacred reciprocity is created, since I also accept unconditionally the other’s self—the self that is totally other than me. I can even accept the otherness that stands against me. As I treasure even this, I discover an outsidedness that liberates me, invites me, compels me. So, the more differentiated I find that the other is, the more I am able to treasure the other’s otherness, since in this I also discover more of my self, and am granted the freedom to present this back in the crucible of discovery and transformation. This outsidedness creates a spark, a dynamic charge, a creative and innovative energy which emerges neither from me nor for the other, but from the dynamic itself. It is a taste, a glimpse of glory and new life—painful, yes. Disruptive, certainly. But an event that goes to the core of life.
It really is just about as good as it gets.

The phrase “as good as it gets” is used cynically in the Jack Nicholson movie of the same name, but sets up a resolution to the film that depicts relational encounter and the outsidedness experienced by the two male protagonists as an event that actually is “as good as it gets”. Nicholson’s character Melvin is portrayed as a sufferer of obsessive compulsive disorder, which, by its very nature, sets him in fearful isolation from the world outside. His controlled insider’s world is barricaded behind locked double doors and a fearsome relational style that arms itself with the full gamut of antisocial behaviours, from bigotry and homophobia to delusions of grandeur. The irony is that from this place of lines, walls and keeping within the cracks, Melvin writes about love without, we presume, ever experiencing it. Love is a subject to be written about—it’s not an event in which Melvin engages with an actual other. But the intrusion from outside of a dog, Verdell, who belongs to Melvin’s “gay neighbour” Simon, is the catalyst for Melvin’s long, slow discovery of outsidedness. While his defenses are engineered to prevent people getting in, the dog is able to slip through the cracks. It’s just a brief engagement with an other, but it’s enough to trigger the transformation of Melvin’s walls.
The process is by no means pretty. Once the dog gets in Carol the waitress gets in too. Attempting to patch up his defences Melvin busts in on his psychiatrist, who reinforces his own lines of differentiation by refusing to give Melvin a session outside the appointment book. It’s following a to and fro with the therapist that Melvin, casting his superior gaze around the waiting room, says to the anxious patients, “What if this is as good as it gets?” One of them yelps “Oh!” at the prospect of this being true. But of course, it isn’t true. The statement is a desperate last stand against the armies of outsidedness camped just beyond Melvin’s ramparts.

Three scenes typify the gradual process of outsidedness that changes Melvin’s life. In the first, Melvin has been walking Verdell, who now avoids the cracks in the pavement just like Melvin. A resonance between them has made it more bearable for Melvin to emerge into the outside. But there has been something of a role reversal with Simon. He has been mugged and is confined to a wheelchair (which acts as a barrier between he and Melvin, and Verdell, in the scene). Simon is about to be evicted. Unable to paint, his financial supporters and friends have scarpered, and Melvin encounters him at his point of despair. This has no real bearing on Melvin’s behaviour towards Simon. The reality is, Melvin can’t see Simon enough for anything to alter his view; he cannot register, let alone treasure, Simon’s otherness. He is the “gay neighbour”, unworthy of encounter—an object, a thing, like any other on the horizon of Melvin’s tiny, controlled space. Likewise, Simon is so sorry for himself he cannot see Melvin, who to Simon is an “absolute horror of a human being.” Despite all of this, an encounter occurs. It is confrontational, which is typical of encounters where neither party can see the other as a significant “you”. The friction that is generated as they both seek to physically pass by each other without encounter lights up the scene and draws them both to a level of knowing that was totally unanticipated.

It occurs on the back of four pithy insults Melvin fires at Simon to keep him reduced to an “it”. “This place smells like shit,” he says. Followed by: “Nelly, you’re a disgrace to depression”; “No need to stop being a lady”; and “Quit worrying, you’ll be back on your knees in no time.” Melvin doesn’t even notice Simon’s increasing rage, which explodes in a symbolic act of meeting as Simon throws himself from the wheelchair—barrier transgressed! This, and Simon’s enraged confession that “The gay neighbour is terrified. TERRIFIED!” has an extraordinary effect on Melvin. Rather than retreat behind the barricades of his own apartment, Melvin sits and looks at Simon for the first time. He even utters a word of explanation, a lame olive branch: “I was just trying to give you a boost,” followed by the divulgence of the secret to Verdell’s growing affection (it’s all about the bacon). While Melvin ends up leaving Simon’s apartment with no resolution, he has seen Simon’s otherness for the first time. Standing outside the realm of his own bigoted dismissal of Simon, the different way of seeing takes root.

The second scene takes place that same night. Unable to sleep after a disruptive visit from Carol (again, a visit that violates his isolationism), Melvin takes soup to Simon—in the middle of the night. This now disturbs Simon’s equilibrium. He clearly believes the confrontation earlier in the day has reinforced the distance between them. But what ultimately sits between them instead is the Chinese soup. Melvin and Simon sit side by side on a bench in the vestibule (the lack of eye contact symbolises the lack of direct encounter at this stage). The soup sits between them serving two symbolic purposes—it separates but it also brings together. This is echoed in their dialogue. Melvin, in very ambiguous terms, shares his anxiety, and suddenly there’s a resonance, a synchrony almost, as Simon, understanding and seeing, Simon echoes Melvin’s words. For a brief moment there is a mutuality; their anxiety is uttered as a chorus. But it is oh so brief. No sooner have they reached a point of mutual connection than Melvin is up and off, as if terrified, or at least totally satisfied, by the encounter. “I’m glad we did this,” he says, slapping his knees. And leaves. The entire scene takes less than a minute.

The third scene, the fulfilment of their journey towards encounter, comes towards the end of the movie. Melvin, Simon and Carol have been on their shared road trip of discovery, during which Melvin has realised more about himself as he has learnt to see those around him. And this has profoundly impacted his ability to see others. It’s given him contours, drawn him outside of the safety and fear of his isolated existence, and in the process he has discovered … grace. Returning from their road trip Melvin takes Simon into his apartment, a symbolic and quite literal crossing over the inside/outside line of demarcation. Simon crouches to meet Verdell, saying “Mommy and daddy are home,” a potential blurring of the walls between him and Melvin. Uncomfortable but undeterred, Melvin shows Simon his new room, which Simon’s friends have furnished without his knowledge. Not only has Simon now come inside, he has been welcomed in to stay. Melvin has surrendered his isolation for the long term.
And it’s at this moment outsidedness embraces them both. “Thank you Melvin,” Simon says. “You overwhelm me … I love you.” Simon says to Melvin. Now it’s Melvin’s turn to be overwhelmed.

“I tell you buddy, I’d be the luckiest guy alive if that did it for me.”
In other words, Simon’s expression of love is significant enough to draw them into an actual face-to-face love encounter—but the differentiation, the very firm line of demarcation, particularly around their sexuality, remains. Nevertheless, the old walls have become something else. Where once they stood as literal and symbolic instruments of separation and hatred, those same walls now function as an opportunity for two men to encounter one another as others, but others now bound together. In this space, and in this moment, Melvin and Simon see the world in a different way, and it’s a world where grace has become primary. They have experienced outsidedness.

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