The theologian, Martin Buber, talks of two fundamental ways of standing or being in the world (twofold attitudes). These two ways of being in ministry and life are I-Thou or I-It. Both of these ways Buber identifies are about something deeper than behavior. The deeper way to which Buber is referring is the way we see others in our hearts or souls, the way we are toward other(s). He is not suggesting a dichotomy, but more of a continuum between these two poles. Our way of seeing others is constantly moving between these two ways of the heart. When in an I-Thou way, I see the importance of people, relationships and caring for them and self in a responsible way. When in an I-Thou way, I believe that all people are made in the image of God longing for love, respect, value, voice, dignity and acceptance; people really matter. The I-Thou way is Christ’s model. When in an I-It way, I see others as serving my needs, my desires. When in this I-It way, my purpose or my desire or my outcome is most important; I am more important than you or others, thus, there is no Thou. The in-betweenness and the God who happens there when authentic encounter occurs are lost. I-It is the path of narcissism and is antithetical to what Jesus models. Ministry, missions and evangelism that are most influential and lasting, I believe, come from the I-Thou place—deep, responsible caring for those to whom and with whom we minister apart from manipulation, shame or coercion. It grows out of grace and invitation.
Almost any behavior can be done in either way or from either place—I-Thou, 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 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, resist 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 dealing with conflict constructively 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.
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” at the expense of the other being an “It;” 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, influence or progress comes not through separation but through sustained connection. My senses are directed outward. It is about them and their well-being, thus my own. 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 and deepening community.
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.
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 strictly accountable for how I am seeing others in every encounter. I no longer make excuses or craft ways to justify or rationalize 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. Buber writes, “But on the height of personal existence one must truly be able to say ‘I’ in order to know the mystery of the Thou (and the We) in its whole truth.” In systems language, self-differentiation points toward this phenomenon—the ability to define self while staying in relationship with others — to say “I” in a mature, responsible way that does not belittle people who stand at a different place. When in an I-Thou way and culture, I am no longer committed just to my own interests, outcomes and well-being, but to the common good, to the growth, well-being, collective good and success or positive movement of We.
Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation.