I reread “I and Thou”, a slim text by the Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, about dialogue and relation. He wrote it in 1923, a time of great world upheaval. Crushing debt after the first World war. Unemployment, hunger, social unrest, assassinations. Mussolini and Hitler rose from this rubble.
Buber tells me there are two kinds of relations. An “I-It” and an “I-Thou.” The I-Thou is about opening up, letting go, affirming because it is understood that both, the observer and observed, you and I, experience each other as each other, simultaneously.
I remember reading… oh, when was that? I have such a difficult time remembering dates. It could have been twenty years ago or five, but I remember it going something like this:
Physicists were experimenting with atoms. They wanted to break the smallest thing known into smaller parts and observe what those parts do and how they are connected to the whole. They had an enormous machine that could shoot out one atom at a time at a screen that captured its impression, its fingerprint if you will, when it hit.
What they observed was a particle that was also a wave. A dot and a snake — or a wavy pencil line if snakes are a trigger for you. It was two things at once and depending on — and this is where it got very interesting for me — the observer’s relation to It, It could become change from a wave to a particle. There was a connection between the two. And that relation opened up, for me, a whole other dimension of experiencing the world.
When there is an I-It the I is assessing the other, calculating, measuring, using. The I-It is mostly what I see happening in the world. Our history books are full of accounts of war and violence, plundering and exploitation when Thou became an It.
I go out to the garden. Unlike yesterday, when I was hurrying through my day; made longer as everything I did was clumsy, unprecise, and unconscious. I was fumbling and tripping and for some reason angry. I was hanging out inside my head, chattering away as if my thoughts, those mental dialogues are real.
Today I pause on the porch, looking out at all the Thou’s out there. It’s quite overwhelming.
Some things have to become It. Like the steps, like the acres of grass that, without my glasses, which I’m seldom wearing these days and probably explains some of the bruises on my knees, looks like a solid blanket of green. Indistinguishable blades. It’s an It. How could I walk on It otherwise?
I have a sudden insight into the Jains, a sect of Hinduism whose main focus in life is not to harm any being. They would sweep the path before taking a step so as not to crush a bug. Or seed. They do walk on the ground though, so obviously there are necessary limits to I-Thou.
Everything is meeting, says Buber.
I wish he were alive today. He is one man I would like to meet.
That sounds harsh I know, but many men of my generation relate to almost everything as an I-It. Look at the political decisions that have been made over the decades, centuries, by old white men.
So when Buber wrote I and Thou in those very turbulent times, I see a lot of similarities today. Systemic racism and sexism, pushback to injustice, a collapsed economy, unemployment. A pandemic. Scapegoating. Hoarding. Borders closing. Violence. Natural disasters compounding it all.
I must always remember that behind every It, the Thou exists.
I’m fearful though. I’m not as optimistic about human nature as you. Will we share our last loaf of bread? Will we not judge the outsider. The foreigner? The one from away? How many are there of us? Enough to change politics?
I’m becoming accustomed to solitude.
A friend dropped by unannounced yesterday to see if I wanted to go for a drink. I didn’t want to see anyone but am fearful I will become a hermit.
Is that a form of autism? I would prefer a conversation in my own head rather than step out of myself to be with… thou.
I accept. Of course. She needs to talk. Listening suits the solitary.
I do understand, I say.
How can you? You love being alone, she tells me.
You see how differently she sees me dear one? I’m a wave and a particle depending on the observer.