Two cities overlap. One house, for example, belongs to one city; the neighboring house belongs to another city. But the citizens of one city are not allowed to notice what is going on in the other city: houses, people, traffic, anything. They learn to un-see the life of the other city. This un-seeing is enforced by a mysterious agency.
This is the central conceit in China Miéville’s The City and the City.
There are a number of Gospel stories about people who don’t live in the same world. Think of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, in which the Rich Man cannot bring himself to think other than in terms of himself. It is therefore impossible for him to recognise Lazarus or Abraham as persons. He cannot see the chasm that consequently lies between them. They are in different worlds.
We see the same thing in the story of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus reverses the selfish logic of the lawyer’s question – who is my neighbour? – by asking, instead, who is the neighbour to the man beaten and left by the road?
We can also see it when Jesus tells people that, when he was in prison, they never visited, when he was naked, they never clothed him, and so on. Jesus is pointing out that these people saw needs but felt no pull to do something. These people had bracketed themselves off from those who were suffering.
Moreover, in these stories not only does Jesus reveal one world to be false, often he also cannot recognise the people who live in the false world. We hear those most terrifying words in the Gospels come from his mouth: I do not know you. In refusing to relate, one gradually ceases to be. In denying the personhood of others, one loses one’s own identity. And since we have only one name, that one by which God knows us, when we lose that, we are unrecognisable.
This cold-heartedness is something most of us are familiar with, but we should not lose hope. I remember hearing on the radio a person giving dating advice. The presenter was dealing with the problem of feeling limited to those one is physically attracted to, ruling out the ‘non-models’ from one’s universe. The presenter responded by saying something along the lines of, “Don’t worry if you are only attracted to beautiful people and are scared you might be superficial. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Go over and talk to someone that you’re not immediately attracted to anyway. You might surprise yourself and realise that you are not as superficial as you thought.”
This is a bit like that prayer: take out my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh (Ez 36:26). We should not rule the possibility that God has already answered and that he has taken us out of the prison we have created for ourselves and placed us back in the land of the living. Just because we don’t feel anything stir within us when we spot someone else’s need, we should not assume we are living in a different world, beyond salvation. Have a crack at helping, and a small opening might appear in that heart of stone, letting light in from that other world which is one’s true home.
[The video link to ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits is there because of the line: ‘we have just one world, but we live in different ones.’]