In his incredible book Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard was concerned that we neglect to love our neighbors because we focus on the dissimilarities between us. We are like actors in a play:
“Here you see only what the individual represents and how he does it. It is just as in the play. But when the curtain falls on the stage, then the one who played the king and the one who played the beggar, etc. are all alike; all are one and the same—actors. When at death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality…then they, too, are all one, they are human beings. All of them are what they essentially were, what you did not see because of the dissimilarity that you saw—they are human beings.”
This excellent illustration cuts in two directions. First, it speaks to the way we view other people. We see successful businessmen, gifted speakers, homemakers, professional athletes, homeless people, white or blue collared workers, etc. We notice skin color and gender, confidence and awkwardness.
But Kierkegaard would have us understand that these outward dissimilarities are nothing more than roles we are called upon to play. The differences are there, but the time is coming when the curtain will fall, and the man who played the king will sit down for drinks with the man who played the beggar. And they will sit together as equals, for they are not king and beggar in reality—these were roles they assumed on the stage—they are nothing more and nothing less than actors. People. They are equal.
We would do well, then, to look past the outward symbols of dissimilarity when we encounter another person. We should look deeply into her eyes and recognize the gaze of a fellow human being. This allows us to view the other person as a neighbor. (“Neighbor,” by the way, is an important concept for Kierkegaard. I will inevitably write about this before long.)“The dissimilarity of earthly life is like an actor’s costume…each one should have the outer garment fastened loosely so that in the moment of transformation, the garment can be cast off easily.” —Kierkegaard
Isn’t this the way it works in our neighborhoods? There is no hierarchy on my street. When I stand on the sidewalk with my neighbors, we don’t relate to each other as realtor, professor, pastor, programmer. We are simply neighbors. We spend much of our lives on adjacent lots. We leave our jobs and head home to talk and play in the street without once deferring to one another’s professional titles. The roles we play and the costumes we wear are irrelevant; we are able to love one another as equals.
The conversations I have on my street are a taste of humanity stripped of its dissimilarities. If only we could see everyone in that light. If only we could stop playing games and simply love.
But this will also require us to see the other direction that Kiekegaard’s illustration cuts. Kierkegaard would have us look to ourselves and remember that we, too, are only actors, regardless of how important (or insignificant) a role we believe ourselves to be playing:
“We seem to have forgotten that the dissimilarity of earthly life is just like an actor’s costume…so that each one individually should be on the watch and take care to have the outer garment’s fastening cords loosely tied and, above all, free of tight knots so that in the moment of transformation the garment can be cast off easily.”
Do you have some level of power in this life? Don’t hold it too closely. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You have been called upon to play the role of an executive or a teacher or a supervisor or a day laborer. But that role does not define you. Make no mistake that one day your costume will have to be removed. Better to wear the costume loosely so that you are prepared to step back into the role of human being as soon as the play ends.
It’s difficult to see other people as neighbors when we see ourselves as big shots. Likewise, it’s difficult to interact with people as equals when we see ourselves as supporting cast at best.
So play your role well. Give it everything it deserves. But don’t forget that the stage only extends so far. Don’t lose sight of the curtain—it is going to drop. And there you will stand. No longer the king. No longer the beggar. But an actor. A neighbor. A human.