The Shrink’s Links: I and Thou

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To understand relationships, it is essential to understand what the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber meant by I and Thou. Buber was an existentialist, but unlike most existentialists, who smoke too many cigarettes, wear black, disbelieve in God, and say a lot about individual authenticity, Buber was very religious and he spoke mostly about relationship. I don’t know if he wore black and smoked cigarettes.

According to Buber, you relate to others in two ways. The first is the I-It relation. In this, you treat the other as an object or a machine. You categorize and manipulate. You go to the bank and hand the teller your deposit. You say hello and have a nice day, but she just as well might be an ATM. You interact with this person, but you don’t actually meet. When you relate in I-It, you’re relating from only one part of your being, you are not fully engaged with the person you are making into an It. It is a mode governed by the past (what you already know about the other person and what are your habitual patterns of interaction) and aimed towards the future (what you are trying to accomplish). You go through most of the day like this. You think this way most of the time. It’s a practical necessity and nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s not the best you can do.

The I -Thou relationship is harder to grasp. Some of the confusion is due to the translation. Buber wrote in German and called it Ich-Du. Ich, I am told, means I, but Du has no translation. Du is the German second person familiar and English has no second person familiar. It used to. It used to be Thou, so translators use Thou. The trouble is, Thou, to modern English speakers, is associated with formal religious contexts and the grandiose language of the King James Bible. Du is a word we use for someone we are equal to or intimate with. Maybe a better translation would be Bro, as in, What’s up, Bro?, or Girl, as in, You go, Girl.

In an I-Thou encounter, you aren’t looking for anything, or trying to get anything. You’re not trying to understand, theorize, influence, or control. The other is just an other, as you are. There is a recognition of mutuality. You are completely present; in the “here and now”, rather than the “there and then”.

For Buber, it is impossible for you to grow as a human being on your own. You require a Thou to be complete. However, he frustratingly says you cannot will yourself into an I-Thou relation. There are no exercises that will get you there. It just has to happen.

I don’t agree. I think you can prepare yourself, look for it, and want it.

Those of us trained in psychotherapy were trained to relate to clients from I-Thou, even though our instructors may not have used Buber’s terminology. It’s found in Carl Roger’s principles of congruence, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. It’s embedded in Wilfred Bion’s aspiration to spend the therapeutic hour “without memory or desire”. I-Thou is not found in therapies where the therapist already has an idea where he wants to take the client and uses techniques to bring him there, when he has skills to teach, or interpretations to deliver. That’s more I-It. Therapists would do well to consider that techniques do not determine success in therapy as much as relationships do. I would commend them to study Buber, but remind them not to despair when they read him say about how they cannot make I-Thou happen.

Buber, being a devout, if unconventional, Jew, said that through every I-Thou experience you have connects you to God, who he calls the Eternal Thou. As a consequence, even atheists who relate to other humans in an I-Thou encounter are closer to God than religious people who treat others as objects to be manipulated. Conversely, It is important to Buber that we recognize the evil inherent in the I-It relation. It short circuits your ability to experience real relationship and real spirituality.

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