Almost any behavior can be done in two ways or from two stances or attitudes toward life and other— I-Thou or an I-It. I-Thou values the other as a person and is open to and responds to their humanity and needs, wanting what is best for the other. I-It is seeing the other as an object, the process of objectifying the other.
When we talk about I-Thou or I-It¹, we are talking about something deeper than behavior. The deeper way to which we are referring is the way we see others in our heart or soul, the way we are toward other(s). Two ways of the heart/soul toward others are I-Thou or I-It. I am not suggesting a dichotomy, but more a continuum between these two stances. Our way of seeing others is constantly moving between these two ways of the heart. Almost any behavior can be done in either way or from either place—I-Thou or I-It or somewhere in-between. There are two ways to say “Yes,” two ways to say “No,” two ways to smile, two ways to frown, two ways to cry, two ways to correct, two ways to compliment, two ways to discipline, two ways to reward.
But consider how different two apparently identical behaviors can be:
- Seeing me in an I-Thou way someone compliments me.
- Seeing me in an I-It way someone compliments me.
Do the compliments feel the same?
- Or think about how it feels to be corrected by someone who sees me as a person (I- Thou) as compared to someone who sees me as an object (I-It).
- When people are in an I-Thou place toward me, in most instances, they can use the same words as someone in an I-It way toward me, and the outcomes differ. The I-Thou I hear, the I-It I resist.
Whatever we do on the surface, what people react or respond to is who we are being in our hearts and souls when we do it. The deeper place of the heart/soul is the soil from which authentic presence, integrity and influence blossom and are cultivated, nurtured and grown. The way of our hearts/souls determines influence.
Even engaging conflict well or trying to invite peace can be waged either while seeing others as objects (I-It) or while seeing them as people (I-Thou). The narrative we tell ourselves is what helps determine the way of our souls. John Paul Lederach writes:
We live by the stories we tell about each other.²
Through these stories, the pain and way of seeing are transferred multigenerational. While Lederach was talking about international conflict, the same is true in the local parish and in our families. What are the stories we tell about each other, ourselves and our world?
When my heart and soul are in conflict, the path to peace is a lonely one. My senses are directed inward. It is about me and my well-being. How do I feel safe? How do I look? How will I be seen? When in this place where my focus is on “I,” my “solution” is merely the behavioral extension of the way of my heart and soul. When in this place, my focus is on me looking good or me getting my way. When my heart and soul are not at peace, it not only invites conflict, it also invests in it. When my solutions fail, I become frustrated, hopeless, indifferent and disconnected. I begin to blame others.
When my heart is at peace because I am in an I-Thou place toward those with and to whom I minister, I know that true, lasting peace or progress comes not through separation but through sustained connection. My senses are directed outward. It is about them and their well-being. How do I create spaces that invite them to feel safe? How do I help others feel and experience peace and a new way of being and doing? This I-Thou reflects the heart/soul Jesus invites us to engage. From this place, my focus grows not out of me looking good, but out of deep care for other(s) and the community–the we.
This is the path to sustainable connection and healthy peace.
This path requires a commitment to integrity—to honoring the heart/soul and senses that come now that I am re-engaged with people in an I-Thou way. It requires doing the right thing, not necessarily the easy thing. I find when I follow my heart, it rarely steers me wrong.
The path also requires letting go of hurt and wrongs inflicted in anxiety and conflict. Like Jacob and Esau, forgiveness and reconciliation are a journey. I will see in the eyes of those that I have been blaming heartaches that look and feel very much like my own. In their struggles, stumbles, failures and celebrations, I see my own.
Both commitments require that I hold myself accountable for how I am seeing others in every encounter. I no longer make excuses or craft ways to justify my behaviors. I own my mistakes and do everything I can to invite those I have hurt to reconciliation and wholeness again.
Finally, I recognize that sustainable connection requires others—community family, friends, fellow parishioners and co-workers/co-ministers. I cannot do it alone, although sometimes I need solitude.
They and I are no longer the context. Seeing life and others as I and It is no longer the way. I-Thou and We is the cultural lens and emerging way. Buber comments that there is no I without Thou; the two words I-Thou with a hyphen are one. According to Buber, “Not until a person can say I in perfect reality—that is, finding him/herself, can s/he in perfect reality say Thou—that is, to God. And even if s/he does it in a community s/he can only do it “alone.””³ Consequentially, I am no longer committed just to my own interests and well-being, but to the common good, to the growth, well-being, common good and success or positive movement of We.
Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation.
. . .on the narrow ridge, where I and Thou meet, there is the realm of “between,” . . .Here the genuine third alternative is indicated, the knowledge of which will help to bring about the genuine person again and to establish genuine community.
To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an ‘I-It’ relationship for an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.
~Martin Luther King, Jr., Letters from a Birmingham Jail
¹ For Martin Buber, these two concepts, I-Thou and I-It, represent two ways of standing in the world.
² The Poetic Unfolding of the Human Spirit. Sponsored by Fetzer Institute, Fall, 2010.
³ In this quote, I changed Buber’s pronoun genders from “he” to a more inclusive “s/he.”