Rummaging through recent photographs, I stumbled on this one, taken at Xuanwu Lake in Nanjing. There’s nothing terribly unusual about the picture. A street artist sketching a young woman, nothing more. But the image reminded me of a poem by Antonio Machado. In his “Moral Proverbs and Folk Songs,” he writes:
Look for your other half
who walks always next to you
and tends to be what you are not
I love Machado’s strange simplicity. There is nothing fancy about the language, no words more than two syllables, most only one. It’s almost as if he wrote this verse for a small child. A simple admonition, a word of wisdom, very similar to the Biblical proverbs many of us learnd to recite as children.
At the same time, I can’t help but wonder who exactly this “other half” is. Married couples often refer to their spouses as their “other half,” but more in jest, and not in the same sense I think Machado intends. The first time I came across this proverb, I thought he might be referring to a kind of metaphysical other self – something like an emotional self, as compared to the physical self.
Although I still like the metaphysical interpretation, I’m beginning to think it’s a little too self-centered, a little bit egotistical. I think there is something more to Machado’s poetry than the self. Something turned outward rather than inward. Something expansive; something searching for wholeness. It’s possible that Machado’s “other half” simply refers to other people. This occurs to me now, I think, because of living in China – a country so full of people that there is always someone “who walks always next to you.”
And now when I look at this street artist, I think, yeah, it’s her; she’s the other half. Or rather, they are each other’s other half. We are each other’s other half. We tend to be what the other is not. I know this sounds like another call for diversity, but that is not the case. Well, it is and it isn’t. As an American, I am beginning to wonder if our love of the individual is beginning to give us a false sense of self-sufficiency. A strange self-contained confidence. Maybe we’ve been looking inward for so long that we can’t see what’s on the outside anymore. Or maybe we haven’t been “looking” inward at all, but merely retreating to some safe place within ourselves. Maybe. Personally I’ve never had much self-confidence. But I do tend to look inward before looking outward – that is, when I actually feel the need to look outward. Which is why I also believe it’s even possible that we’re not looking for our other half because we’re convinced we’re already whole.