Martin Buber wrote an amazing book in 1923 that has endured and perhaps will endure as a classic. It was called I-Thou. In vivid poetic language that is as fresh today as it was then, he spoke a timeless truth. (Here are excerpts that give the flavor of his writing.) Humans have two modes, I-Thou or I-It. I-Thou is relational and we speak to and from the whole of ourselves. I-It is transactional (my word) and the It can refer to He or She. I-It makes the world and the other an object outside of ourselves.
This is a vital distinction but not one we’re taught or conditioned to notice. Yet everything flows from whether we’re approaching the world as I meeting Thou, or I meeting It in every moment. “On how one orients himself to the moment, depends the failure or fruitfulness of it” wrote Henry Miller.
Activists are trying to change something in the world. If we do activism from an I-it perspective – an ideology – we’ll try and change what we don’t like, not seeing we’re part of it. We’ll not be plugged into the entire ecosystem of the problem, whatever it is. We’ll just see some of it, a part that we or someone else, has judged as bad. And we’ll try and change that bad thing. Unaware of the whole system and not present enough to notice the exquisite feedback present in the system, our actions become part of the problem.
I-Thou mode, approaches the issue reverently, nakedly. Recognizing we’re part of that field we get feedback immediately from ourselves. We get immediate feedback from others too: We can look at them and see immediately if life is being served here.
Recently I was with a friend and we both became aware of the I-Thou dimension. We’d been sharing what we were experiencing in the moment and we noticed the strong sense of immediacy. What I thought was that this relational connection – which was palpable and alive, like a current – is always going on. But I usually don’t notice it.
I-It is safer, easier to inhabit. I-Thou is always present, but usually I’m not.
There’s a practical application to this. We want to be effective in this bewildering moment. We want to help. Yet only I-Thou is able to help. Spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti said it like this: Action has meaning only in relationship and without understanding relationship, action on any level will only breed conflict. The understanding of relationship is infinitely more important than the search for any plan of action.
Understanding relationship doesn’t mean having a theory about connection; it means being directly present to it. We can also be directly connected to not being present. That’s I-Thou connection too because it’s being real with what is.
It feels good to acknowledge that I-Thou connection is there, a part of us, even though we may not know. Much of life is like that! Electricity was there before Tesla or Edison stumbled upon it. It was always there but we didn’t know about it. Everyone’s experienced I-Thou, the sense of reverence in the presence of another, and forgotten, again and again. Yet when we’re not tapped into the dimension of I and Thou, we’re in a world of our plans and fantasy outcomes and nothing real can result.