When I first read it at the age of 21, Martin Buber’s I and Thou led to a series of events that changed me profoundly, and continue to do so. My upbringing made it hard for me to express my feelings. With each reading, Buber’s book has helped open me to a new way of being, though I still have far to go.
As I understand it, the I-Thou relationship involves a spontaneous, honest, compassionate, equal, mutual dialogue that engages one’s “whole being,” during which each party is completely present, without reserve, and cares for the other unconditionally.
I take the “whole being” to refer to experiences that involve deep feelings and thoughts, the body, and the “life force,” which some call Spirit and others call God. However, it may be preverbal, beyond words, when you are left speechless. As I see it, an I-Thou interaction may involve the body, as with a warm embrace, cuddling, or sexual intercourse.
“Mutual” is not the same as “reciprocal.” You do not give in order to receive. You give and receive at the same moment, with no regard for the future.
Nor is I-Thou a matter of helping someone so you will feel better. You may, or may not, feel better after giving. But that is not the point. You give sincerely. Any benefit to you is a byproduct, a gift.
The “I-Thou” encounter is a spiritual relationship. It happens in the air between those who are involved. It cannot be measured. Whether someone is giving, or receiving, more than the other is irrelevant. Those calculations are the result of self-centeredness.
It can happen in therapy. I would like to talk to others the way I talk to my therapist. And I would like others to talk to me in the same way.
I’ve often been frustrated when others mostly talk about themselves — their thoughts, feelings, and stories — and express little or no interest in me. Most conversations strike me as a series of monologues.
But that frustration is often a reflection of my own self-centeredness. When others appear to be self-centered in that way, they may actually be concerned about me but unable or afraid to express it. And they may have good reason to be afraid. In this world of ours, there certainly are many understandable reasons for being guarded.
The nature of my personality may be one reason others hold back when we’re together. I can seem to be distant, less than fully present. I often think before I speak, which can leave the impression that I’m less than authentic. And they may know that I can be judgmental (I’m working on that). So for those and other reasons, I shouldn’t blame others. There are many factors involved, including our society and its culture.
Regardless, the I-Thou attitude does not require the other to respond in kind. I can engage the I-Thou attitude while waiting for a mutual I-Thou relationship to emerge, if and when it does. And I can be compassionate and be a good listener. If they want to talk, I can listen, without demanding they listen to me. Maybe they really need to talk about themselves. Who am I to say?
After all, maintaining an I-Thou relationship over time is impossible. It’s like a red-hot fire that must burn out. Then we rest, fall into I-It relationships, and use others as objects.
We can also use ourselves as objects. We often reduce ourselves to instruments to achieve a goal.
But using ourselves or others as objects does not preclude I-Thou. So long as those I-It characteristics are in the back of our minds, I-Thou can still be central. Anyway, those are my interpretations.
Buber’s book is not the only tool that loosened me up. There were many other influences, most of which go back to Germany in the 1920s and the rich cross-fertilization of thought that emerged at that time, in which Buber was immersed. Those innovators included Jacob Moreno, psychodrama; Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy; Wilhelm Reich, bioenergetics.
Their work contributed to what became known as the “human potential movement” in the United States, with which I became involved, at times with my peers in non-professional capacities. It’s hard to know what kind of person I would be without that movement. But I believe I’m better as a result, for which I will be eternally grateful. And most of all, I’m grateful to Martin Buber.