I-Thou v I-It relationships


If America were a marriage, we'd need therapy.

There has been so much bad communication over the past year: People talking in warring monologues past each other, ignoring the facts and using lazy stereotypes like "elites" and "Trumpeans" to reduce complex individuals into simplistic categories. Meanwhile, our main candidates are poor connectors. We've got the self-enclosed narcissism of Mr Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, the mistrustful defensiveness of Mrs Hillary Clinton's campaign.

As an antidote for all this, I've been reading the work of Martin Buber, the early 20th-century Jewish theologian who dedicated his career to understanding deep intimacy. Buber is famous for the distinction between I-It relationships and I-Thou relationships.

I-It relationships come in two varieties.

Some are strictly utilitarian. You're exchanging information in order to do some practical thing, like getting your taxes done.

But other I-It relationships are truncated versions of what should be deep relationships. You're with a friend, colleague, spouse or neighbour, but you're not really bringing your whole self to that encounter. You're fearful, closed or withdrawn - objectifying her, talking at her, offering only a shallow piece of yourself and seeing only the shallow piece of her.

I-Thou relationships, on the other hand, are personal, direct, dialogical - nothing is held back. A Thou relationship exists when two or more people are totally immersed in their situation, when deep calls to deep, when they are offering up themselves and embracing the other in some total, unselfconscious way, when they are involved in "mutual animated describing".

A doctor has an I-It relationship with a patient when he treats him as a machine in need of repair. But Mr Peter DeMarco described an I-Thou relationship in a letter to the doctors and nurses who cared for his dying wife, which was published in The New York Times: "How many times did you hug me and console me when I fell to pieces, or ask about Laura's life and the person she was, taking the time to look at her photos or read the things I'd written about her? How many times did you deliver bad news with compassionate words, and sadness in your eyes?"

In our culture, we use phrases like finding oneself, finding your passion, loving yourself so you can love others. But Buber argued that it's nonsensical to think of the self in isolation. The I exists only in relation to some other.

"The development of the soul in the child is inextricably bound up with that of the longing for the Thou," he wrote. All through life, the self is emerging out of some dialogue, either a cold, stifling one or a rich, complete one: "All real living is meeting."

You can't intentionally command I-Thou moments into being. You can only be open to them and provide fertile soil.

Some people go through life with a detached posture, trying to self-differentiate themselves and be more sophisticated than others. Those people tend to have mechanical relationships. Their feelings are self-enclosed. They don't get to experience the Thou.

Others adopt a guard-down posture that is open-hearted and open-minded. They regard others as unique persons and not objects. They have histories in which trust and vulnerability are rewarded.

Such people experience moments of genuine dialogue. Buber described genuine dialogue as a sort of social flow. Teachers and students are learning with each other. An audience and an artist are lost in a performance.

These moments don't last. It is the "exalted melancholy of our fate" that Thou moments always fade back into It moments. But a world has been built during such intense moments. A binding cord has been strengthened. The person who has experienced the Thou has been thickened and come closer to wholeness.

Buber's writing reminds us to be intentional and brave about relationships. But it also has communal and political implications. Some organisations and leaders nurture open-hearted bonds. Such communities usually began, Buber wrote, with some sacred Thou moment - like the Exodus story for the Jews or the revolutionary struggles of the early Americans. Leaders connect current problems to that "living effective centre" and set the table for situations of caring and trust.

Buber's story is also apt because he overcame betrayal to come to a posture of trust. When he was a small boy, his mother eloped with an army officer and wasn't seen for 30 years. But he still had the courage to throw himself wholly in with his wife, Paula. Their marriage became a living example of a true and equal Thou.

Today, America is certainly awash in distrust. So many people tell stories of betrayal. So many leaders (Mr Trump) model combativeness, isolation and distrust. But the only way we get beyond depressing years like this one is at the level of intimacy: If Americans reconnect with the living centre of the national story and they rebuild Thous at every level.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2016, with the headline I-Thou v I-It relationships. Subscribe