As human beings we have a way of seeing the world that is quite unique in its flexibility. We can see ourselves as separate from everything we perceive or we can see ourselves as part of and connected to everything around us. The existential philosopher, Martin Buber, called these two relationships, “I-It” and “I-Thou.” In the “I-It” relationship, we experience ourselves as separate from our perceptions. Everything we see is an it. Rocks and plants and other people are perceived as things that we aren’t. We relate to them as objects that we need to manipulate in our environment to get where we want to go. When I am running late, everything in my path is an it, slowing me down, thwarting my intention to get where I am going.
In the I-thou relationship, the I doesn’t objectify what it sees but rather experiences relationship with everything and everyone. The I-thou can’t be explained, it simply is. Two people in the experience of love, for instance, share the unity of being. There is no subject and object. Sometimes skiers have described feeling as if they were “one with the mountain.” This is the I-thou relationship.
As it turns out, we need both types of relationships to live in the world. We can (and do) switch back and forth all the time depending on where we place our consciousness.
For me, when everyone and everything is an it, I start to lose my ability to connect. I have a hard time seeing myself in people or things around me. Instead, I begin to define myself by what I’m not — using my perceptions and my critical judgments to hold the I-thou experience at bay.
You’ve probably noticed how polarized and fear-based our politics have become, how easy it is to demonize someone who doesn’t believe as we do and how indifferent we can all be to someone else’s situation or point of view if it isn’t like ours.
One thing I like to tell myself is that every relationship is sacred, that no one and no thing is really an it on my way to getting where I am going. Each person I meet, each tree that I walk by has the potential to connect me with myself, to allow me the experience of I-thou where I see us both as subjects of something much larger than individual perceptions and beliefs.
When I hold that none of my encounters are trivial or unimportant, I become more curious as to what I might find in each interaction with another person. I become friendlier, more open, more relaxed and secure when I experience myself as connected to what I see. I can feel myself relinquishing my perceptions and judgments in favor of a sort of child-like wonderment about our relationship, our interconnectedness, our similarities. It’s been a wonderful antidote to the fear and egotistical certainty I might project onto all those its out there.
Your comments, as always, are welcome.
I’ll be back with you soon.