ich und du

by Elizabeth de Barros

Martin Buber is my kind of guy. His keen mind was made to think things through.  He’s someone who started to dig a hole to China and actually got somewhere.

Best known for his work, Ich und Du (I and Thou), Buber’s theological and philosophical approach to the world is translated into this small treatise that reveals, by contrast, the fundamental workings of true and false relationships. Reading him gives answer to why there is often so much pain in relationships.

This powerful little book delves into a philosophical issue that might bore some and frighten others if it weren’t so good. He addresses the hidden madness behind the I-It relationship — in which the one is objectified by the other and subjected to meet his/her needs and purposes. Carefully, he probes at the problem and, by dissection, lifts up the more perfect I-Thou relationship, in which the one grants the other the fullness of their reality. This type of relationship is where one’s dignity is preserved and a person is truly encountered. The discovery of a new land, indeed.

I first heard of Buber’s observation over twenty years ago, but it has nested in my psyche ever since and it springs me free from impingement whenever I’m feeling objectified — whenever I’m treated like an “It” rather than “I.”

This distinction, however, is usually made only after I’ve been impinged or, more plainly, used as a prop to satisfy someone else’s suffering ego. The experience of being objectified is hard to put one’s finger on, but it feels like being treated as though you’re only half there. Half a face, half a body, half a world. Being objectified is when the other does not see the all of you. They do not see you in your world, your inherent giftedness or potential. There seems to be a disregard for the sanctity of life. They can only see themselves in their world and how you fit to meet their need: like being friends with Narcissus.

I see it as a subtle form of abuse. A blunt generalization, I know, but I stand by it. All too often, people are not genuinely and sufficiently cared for. It’s what all the silent screaming is about.

When I became a mother, I was met with the common parental challenge of having a screaming baby whom I could not console. The uncontrollable ever-rising pitch was an affront to my sense of control and power.

My reasoning went something like this: It’s my job to make him stop. Why won’t he stop? He must stop…I wish he would stop! STOP!

Then it dawned on me. Hey, who’s in charge here?

I soon learned in God’s school of humility that I was not so much in charge as much as I was given a human being to love and care for, and it was my job to give him sufficient air and space to be who he was: made in the image of God. Imago Dei.

Somewhere on the upswing of the learning curve, it was no longer about tears but about tears and allowing them to fall. If my soothing helped to stop them, then fine, I was doing my job as a mother. I was equally doing my job by interpreting the tears as his way of working through his infantile emotional/physical/spiritual disorganization. There is One greater than I who brings order out of chaos, and He’s in charge of both of us, tears or smiles. I didn’t need to objectify him to gain peace for myself. Instead, by giving him a little more oxygen to be himself, we both ended up breathing a little easier.

If I foist machinations upon my infant child to stop him from crying so that only I may be relieved, he’s only partially alive. If I value others only for what they can do for me or give me, they’re only partially alive. I see only half their face. They’re robbed of their full reality.

But if I can look, even by some small measure, into the light of someone’s face, enter their world as a delighted guest and allow them to do the same, we are both living a greater reality. Intimacy; what every heart yearns for.

I and Thou.