“I can finally relax,” she said. “I couldn’t really enjoy the music when we were with them. I really like those guys, but I’m not at ease with them. I’m happy now to be able to go out with you, so that I can just focus on what I’m doing.” That’s something I heard recently, and I found it very illuminating about the nature of action.
We often imagine that we, as individuals, are free to do what we want, choosing how we will exercise our powers on the things of the surrounding world. That was not the experience of the woman who was speaking, however. Her experience was that other people were a crucial link between her and her world: in the company of unfamiliar companions, she could not comfortably connect with the world, whereas the company of an old friend allowed her the freedom to engage with the world as she wanted. Indeed, it is this second part of her comment that I find particularly revealing and particularly important: being with her friend allowed her to focus on something else. This focus was what she could not do around unfamiliar companions—she could not settle into her situation.
When we spend time with a close companion, it is very often the case that our experience is not about that companion. Our companion, rather, accompanies us in our worldly affairs. We look at the sights with her, shop for clothes with her, read the paper with her: in each case, the company of the other “completes” our inhabiting of the situation and allows us to let ourselves be absorbed in the activity, secure in the sense that we are acting together, even if the activity is something singular and private like reading. What these experiences of companionship reveal is that our actions are characteristically joint actions—actions undertaken with the support of another.
We often misconstrue the nature of action, and, in a related way, we often misconstrue the nature of other persons. We typically think of another person as the object of our experience, as something (someone) to whom we are paying attention. On the contrary, in many ways the character of another person is most powerfully revealed precisely in those experiences in which she is not the object of our experience: our experiences of companionship reveal the other not as an alien object, but as the very medium for engaging with the world and, indeed, for our accessing of our own powers.
We should pay more attention to this notion of other persons as the ones who give us the world and, indeed, give us ourselves.