This post is my second in a short series of reflections on Psalm 139. In the first, I contended that the mystery of God at which the psalmist marvels is not that God knows everything in our modern Western sense of having all the information there is but rather that God cares so much. Hebraic thought and language are relational, and knowledge requires engagement, empathy, and sometimes intimacy.
We human beings are very limited in the degree to which we can know each other. Long-married couples frequently anticipate each other’s reactions to situations or comments and may seem to sense each other’s needs in ways that might surprise the young, but even the deep knowledge of the other person such a couple shares is very partial. This always partial nature of our human knowledge of others is a good thing. Another person, even one deeply loved, should remain always a mystery to us, for two reasons.
One is the delight of continuing discovery. The basic affect called by Affect Script Psychologists “interest-excitement” requires novelty. I enjoy hiking, but what would happen if I were to hike only one short trail and hike it every day? I’d get bored. Sameness is the enemy of interest and a damper on excitement. That we can never fully know the person we like or love benefits the relationship.
The second reason the other should remain a mystery to us is our need for enough self-protection to maintain our freedom from another’s presumption and interference. “I can read you like a book” is an insult. “Familiarity,” the old saw warns us, “breeds contempt.” Presumed over-knowledge of the other person breeds exploitation also. Con artists have just enough knowledge of human desires and defenses to be able to cheat their victims out of money, support, or sometimes even love. Political campaign managers may develop the inflated notion that they have all the handles they need on the people’s emotional reactions to the illusions they spin, but, as we have just seen in the 2012 presidential election, they may, for all their swagger, be misreading the people badly. Even in the closest of relationships, we want to be known enough to be appreciated, respected, and found interesting (maybe even exciting at times), but we do not want to be read like a book or to have someone presume to be able to do so.
The limits set upon our knowledge of each other also protect the person who cares about others. Affect Script Psychology speaks of the “empathic wall” everyone needs to keep from being overwhelmed by the emotions of others. Here’s the problem, or it would be a problem if it had no boundaries, no limits. Several babies are in the same room, each pursuing his or her own interest in objects provided for their exploration. Suddenly, one baby begins to cry, communicating distress. When the cries go unanswered, the baby cries more loudly and insistently until distress gets worked up into full-throttle anguish. What happens? You know. The other babies start crying too. Affect is contagious because it resonates with the affect systems of others, somewhat as a tuning fork that has been struck can start sympathetic vibration in a nearby fork of the same pitch. The vibrations travel from one fork to the other and set it to vibrating also. The other babies have no knowledge of what caused the first to cry, nor do they care; they’re just picking up the vibes. Because other people’s emotions can resonate in us, we need an empathic wall to protect ourselves, but just enough of one. Too high and thick a wall protects us from friendship and love.
Caring about other people is risky business. It can disturb my peace of mind, consume my time and energy, and sometimes even trouble my soul. It’s easier not to get involved but only allow myself to feel some pity, offer a condolence and perhaps a platitude or two, then move on. If the other’s distress seems too far removed from my experience of what I consider normal or contrary to my opinions of what is right and proper, I may feel disgust rather than pity (the two are not so far separated as we might imagine). Disgust is the anti-empathy, the extreme reaction against compassion. Keep that contrast in mind if you are going to read the Bible which, I suggest to you, can be read and heard as the long, complex story of the triumph of God’s compassion over disgust.
Where’s the psalm? This post is my second on Psalm 139, and so far I haven’t mentioned it since the first paragraph. But I have been discussing it all along. If passages of the Bible have contexts of their own in history, literature, and larger biblical themes (as they do), they have contexts also within human nature and experience – within us! The psalms especially are designed to speak for us and not just or even primarily to us. Psalm 139 is not doctrine but wonder. The psalmist (by which I mean the person speaking in the psalm, not its author) is expressing amazement at mattering so much to God. This psalm is far more “Wow!” than fact, commandment, or doctrine.
God knows me completely. Nothing I do, say, feel, or think is hidden from God. Good grief! Are such thoughts comforting? Talk about invasion of privacy!
LORD, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. (Psalm 139:1-4 NRSV)
Actually, I find that, without appreciation of how much God cares, the intellectual notions that God is everywhere and knows everything may be more anesthetizing to the conscience than disturbing. It’s sort of like the horror movie monster that is too big and powerful to be scary. Omnipotence can bring more of a resigned shrug than an alarmed soul. If God sees and knows everything, I have nothing to hide, and so why worry about it? If I’ve gotten this far through life without worrying about what God thinks of me, why start now? Objective, dispassionate all-knowing is more easily written off as irrelevant to life than feared.
But the psalmist is talking about the kind of knowing that cares, that feels life with me, that (as the next verse, verse 5, says) lays its hand upon me. This is God with hand upon my shoulder, God who understands without contempt, who sees without disgust, who walks beside me rather than away from me. This is God who knows me far better than I know myself and still longs for relationship, waits for my response, and persists in, yes, loving me. This is empathy without manipulation even for my “own good.” Here is the realization that keeps moving the psalmist to amazement. That God knows everything is not news. That God knows without disgust and scorn is some news. That God feels life with me because God actually cares about me is real news.