Martin Buber: Are you a ‘thou’ or an ‘it’?
“I believe that the key to creating society that is nourishing, empowering and healing for everyone lies in how we relate to one another.” — Martin Buber, an Austrian born Jewish philosopher
I came across Martin Buber’s work early in my studies of existentialism and existential psychology. Buber’s philosophy was genuine, and showed his love and hope for humanity. His existential philosophical piece entitled “I Thou” is a philosophical discussion on how we relate to other, consciously and unconsciously, and what makes us human.
This is what drew me to his idea. Buber introduced two distinct ways of relating I-Thou and I-It.
In the I-Thou encounter, we relate to each other as authentic beings, without judgment, qualification, or objectification. I meet you as you are, and you meet me as who I am. In the I-Thou relationship, what is key is how I am with you in my own heart and mind.
The I-It encounter is the opposite in that we relate to another as object, completely outside of ourselves.
Let’s step out of the philosophical language. How does this show up in reality?
I remember when I was an intern working at a shelter for families who were experiencing homelessness. The greatest asset that I had was the relationships I formed with the families that lived at this shelter.
It was both hard and wonderful to listen to their stories. I found that I carried them in my mind and heart even after being away for days. I would relate to them even when they were not with me in the room. I would think about the last conversation I had with a mother about her feelings of grief around a lost family member.
My relationship with her was constant even if she was not there. This was an experience of her becoming part of me and part of my own identity. How? Her stories were always on my mind. As a result, her stories become part of my own stories that I am reflecting on now.
This way of relating was or rather is powerful. I was far more effective as an intern therapist because of what Buber suggested.
The I-It relating would be radically different. I have been participating in community organizations for nearly 15 years. Over the years, I have sat in numerous meetings with the agenda of helping “the homeless.” The term “the homeless” distances us from seeing the humanity in the families that I was working with at the shelter.
They were more than homeless families. Being homeless was just a state of being, not who they were as individuals. A few years ago, I began to shift my internal and external language away from using the term “the homeless” as way to describe the lovely folks I was working with.
In doing so, I moved away from the I-It relationship that Buber described as being a relationship based on seeing others as things or in this case as objects, which can easily be dehumanizing.
The I-Thou relationship where one meets the other as who they are rather than what they represent is powerful and healing. Rather than looking at a mother who is living at a shelter as a “homeless mother,” we can see her as a mother and a woman with a name and a personal story to share.
Her story becomes part of our lives and in turn part of our humanity.
When I consider Buber’s philosophy in relation to social change, how we relate to one another would be a great service.
Even when I was no longer working with the homeless, I was working with people to help them find themselves and a new home.
Consider these terms that are often used in policy, health, and community services.
- HIV infected individuals
- Single mothers
Do we relate to someone as an HIV infected individual, or do we relate to this person for who they are in their experience being HIV infected?
I believe that is the question Buber’s I-Thou and I-It philosophy can address. We would be better served in our intentions to create a better world for so many if we considered how we relate to one another.
On a conscious level, we can acknowledge how the labels and assumptions we have about others impact our conversations and relationships. On a more intimate level, we can acknowledge how we hold each other in our thoughts even when we are not with others.
It takes work to be open to such a deeply intimate relationship with others. I am still working on developing a similar relationship with others in my world, really as a way to become a better therapist and person.
I still think of the families I had the opportunity to be with at the shelter. I hold them in my heart and in a sense still have what I would consider a genuine relationship with them, even if they are not here with me. That holding of another is I-Thou relating. It is this type of connection to others on a spiritual and emotional level that can only lead to true relating and compassion for one another.
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