One is called to the deathbed of a parent, and one, facing her, does not know what to say. Yet one has to say something.
The other has arrived at the limit – the limit of her life – when she can do nothing more. But she has yet this to do: to die. It is something she has to do, alone, and without any experience to appeal to, any means or resources. It is something she, nevertheless, has to do and will do well or badly, bravely or in collapse, resolutely or cowering. She has always known she will have to do this, has often thought of it, has often willed to die the one way or the other. For every time she did something bravely, or cowardly, it was an anticipation of this final confrontation. Aristotle, who wrote the first treatise in the West on rational ethics, listed courage first of all the virtues. It is not simply first on the list of equivalent virtues; it is the transcendental virtue, the condition for the possibility of all the virtues. For no one can be truthful, or magnanimous, or a friend, or even congenial in conversation, without courage. And every courage is an act done in risk: of one’s reputation, of one’s job, of one’s possessions, of one’s life.
And you, called upon to be there when the other is at the limit, and also at the origin, of the virtues, the powers, that a life can have, find yourself at the limit of the powers of language.
The nurses say, “I am so glad you have come!” They know you can do, must do, something they cannot do – say something to the dying one. What can one say? Anything one tries to say sounds vacuous and absurd in one’s mouth. It seems to you that the problem is not simply that you do not have the skills in speaking or that you cannot come up with the right things to say because you have no experience in this kind of situation, but that language itself does not have the powers. There is not, in the words and the combinatory possibilities of language, the power to say what has to be said. Yet you have to be there, and you have to say something. You have never been more clear about anything. There are those who do not go, to the bedside of the dying one, demoralized by the terrible impotence of language to say anything. It seems to them that, in their speechlessness, they are carried away already into the region of death and silence with the other. But if you somehow find the courage to go, you are sure you have to be there and have to say something. What is imperative is that you be there and speak; what you say, in the end, hardly matters. You end up saying anything “It’ll be alright, Mom” – which you know is a stupid thing to say, even an insult to her intelligence; she knows she is dying and is more brave than you. She does not reproach you for what you said; in the end it doesn’t matter, what was imperative was only that you say something, anything. That your hand and your voice extend to her in accompaniment to the nowhere she is drifting on to, that the warmth and the tone of your voice come to her as her own breath gives way, and that the light of your eyes meet hers that are turned to where there is nothing to see.
Everyone has known such a situation in which the rift between the saying and the said opens up. A situation in which the saying, essential and imperative, separates from the said, which somehow it no longer orders and hardly requires.
In the rational community the other situation is the normal one – that where what is said is the essential and the saying inessential, that where what is imperative is only that whoever speaks, he say this.
Alphonso Lingis (1994). The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (essays). This is the start of “the element that faces”, p107ff