On the experience of time in missing another person

Some matters are such that the act of writing or speaking about them, for want of words, can only appear as a betrayal of what is stated or written. To know such matters is to understand the privative character of truth, the a- in aletheia, the way in which handing-over-to-presence displays the abandonment spoken of in the incipit of Psalm 21. The following is, then, one of these betrayals.

Two weekends ago, I was in Chicago for a conference. While there, I managed to visit some old friends, a couple I haven’t seen in about four years. Let us call them Joseph and Mary.

Joseph picked me up, and then we drove to his house. While in the car, I described my time at the conference, making some remarks about how the environment of the conference often felt somewhat hostile, which was ironic given that the conference was thematically concerned with making philosophy more welcoming for groups it has traditionally excluded. Joe has an upbeat and jocular personality, so this prompted some jokes on his part. We also spent some time talking about matters of our faith.

Joe lives in his parents’ basement. When we arrived at his house, I was introduced to his parents, his siblings, his older brother’s dog, and his children, and Mary, his wife, who was already a good friend. I began talking with her in the same light manner that I had been talking to Joe in the car. Her demeanor caught me off guard, for it became clear that she intended to genuinely listen to the matter that I was speaking about, instead of merely joining in on the idle talk that I and her husband had so easily and unwittingly fallen into. At that time, the following words formed silently in my heart:

I missed you.

And after being ruminated on throughout the day, this thought gave way to the following:

I didn’t realize how much I missed you

When we say “I miss you” in English, we place ourselves in the position of acting, present subjects, while that which we miss is cast as the direct object of our activity. This is inaccurate. Instead of the matter itself, what the grammar brings to presence in the light of this matter are three prejudices that have sunk deep into our thinking: the reduction to the first-person perspective, the reduction of passivity to activity, and the reduction of every past to a prior present.

During all of the four years that had passed, There was never a time where I was thinking, about this friend, that I missed her. There was no pondering on my part. Rather, what the thought conveyed to me was my own past affliction on account of her having been missing from my life. It conveyed her absence, and my own relative depravity in the relative darkness of that absence. I was not the actor in this missing, but had rather suffered the lack. She was lacking, and I did not know it.

By the time the news had come to me, it came as something that had long been the case. Through long exposure, this lack had become barely perceptible, much as the noise of a jet engine becomes so after a long airplane trip. I now missed her without there ever having been a present where my missing her was the case.

Certain verbs have their roots in the past and only decline into the present. Verbs involving error or failure are often of this kind. One never says “I am mistaken” but only “I was mistaken.” To recognize one’s mistake in very moment of being mistaken is to cease to be mistaken. Missing is a failure of this kind.

(There is something that one may describe as “missing” another in the present tense, but this kind of missing differs fundamentally from that described above. Present missing usually manifests itself as longing; and though more spiritual, is analogically related to base desires such as those for food, drink, and sex – that is, it is reducible to a species of consumption).

Missing, the kind that recently came to address me, is a kind of failure: one wherein I, presently, am struck by my past present-ignorance, which in turn is a falling from a past more complete – grammatically, perfect – than itself.  The present of this recognition can only be, relative to its prior moment, a return to the perfect because it recognizes the previous present as a presence compromised – hence grammatically, the imperfect. As both a return to the ancient and a species of imperfection, presence is a coincidentia oppositorum, a species of was stuck between a had been which is also the longed for to come. Forgetfulness: an oblivion in need of being rescued by the good it does not know.