I-Thou, Creativity and Compassion

Qualities that Embody Ministry Excellence 

Dr. W. Craig GilliamBe kind—for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ~Philo, 1st Century Jewish Mystic  When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he was deeply moved with compassion for them. ~~Matthew 9:36  Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. ~~Viktor E. Frankl 

One of the most important books that I have ever read is Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou. Though I first read I and Thou in seminary where it was assigned reading, I did not really examine it with care. Years later a mentor suggested that, in his opinion, it is an all-time classic. I reread it and still wasn’t grabbed. But years afterwards, I picked it up from my bookshelf, began reading it yet again, and the light switch turned on. I sat down mesmerized with and captured by the text and responded, Wow! From that day forward, it has become a tethered, page-worn book that I go back to for reference and grounding over and over again.

From my experience, one of the best ways to engage Buber’s I and Thou is to read a few pages at a time. The book is extremely dense and painfully difficult. It is filled with made-up words, sentences you can spend a year thinking about, and ideas that surface and re-surface over the course of a life and make more sense with each new appearance. It is not fast food but a five-course gourmet meal that takes precise presence, exquisite attentiveness and savored taste. In a changing, complex culture where the institution feels threatened and the anxiety is high, I-Thou speaks to one of the deepest needs of people in our culture, congregations and other organizations. It invites questions such as: What does it mean to see people as people made in the image of God to be loved and valued? What does it mean to see people in an I-Thou way in spite of the anxious culture of I-It that is so pervasive? How do we open and hold space so that through conversations of compassion and creativity, an I-Thou awareness can be cultivated and deepened? How do we make space for an alternative way of being anddoing—a way that honors people, human dignity, civility, respect and grace? If I can risk putting Buber’s philosophy into a small package, I’d say it has to do with seeing people as made in the image of God to be valued and loved. To do this, three things have to happen. First, we have to see ourselves as made in the image of God to be valued and loved. We have to appreciate the miracle of our own existence. We have to believe that we are lovable and loved—by other people and by the Spirit who created us. Second, we have to get past the self-absorption of the person who goes around thinking: What a miracle I am! How wonderful! How special! How unique! Third, we have to believe that we have the capacity to love genuinely, to be and do in an I-Thou way toward others and ourselves. If things are going badly, we have to somehow remember that we are not alone in our suffering. If things are going well, we have to learn to enjoy and appreciate our good fortune, without giving ourselves all the credit for it. To put it another way, as a wise mentor and friend once shared with me, “Do not get too high with the positive or too low with the painful or what appears to be destructive.” In other words, the spiritual journey is about keeping steady and holding a “paradoxical curiosity” 1 Thus, we are living a kind of spiritual balancing/blending,2 holding a paradoxical curiosity, keeping a full sense of the wonder of our own existence without losing weight of the wonder of others.

  1. John Paul Lederach used the phrase “paradoxical curiosity” in his book, The Moral ImaginationThe Heart and Soul of Building Peace (pp: 35-37). I was reminded of this phrase by David Hooker, a friend and colleague on the staff team at JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation.
  2. Photojournalist Dewitt Jones uses “blend” in the place of “balance”—I use “both/and”.

In a similar kind of balancing/blending act, the Christian monks of long ago used to say “suffering is grace.” It’s a strange concept, especially for people of the modern world who’ve developed a million ways of avoiding or lessening pain. But I think the idea behind it is that, when we suffer, when things don’t go the way we want them to go, we are being given an opportunity to feel compassion for anyone and anything that suffers. We can learn to see the Ithere in that other pair of eyes, and to feel the Thou of that other soul inside and between ourselves. In Buber’s language, in the in-betweenness, we find the Thou. In this sacred space of in-betweenness, our and others’ humanness are invited to meet. When that encounter is authentic, human and real, the third other appears or incarnates. In my language, this is the God whose middle name is Surprise! Buber writes, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” This learning to see the there in others and to feel the Thou of the other’s soul within, between and among us might be at the heart of what the Dalai Lama meant when he commented, “My religion is kindness.” I-Thou, creativity and compassion are connected to what it means to be human beings. This path is a choice. As Kierkegaard comments, “We create ourselves by our choices.” I can choose my own way of the heart/soul/being, as can those with whom and to whom I minister. We call this ability to choose, agency. It cannot be taken from us. We are free at this deepest level to make this choice. We have tremendous freedom and grace in terms of how we see and respond to each other. We can utilize agency in a way that honors, invites and evokes an I-Thou awareness, a way that is filled with grace, creativity, honor, dignity, integrity and compassion. Such a way fosters excellence. To the level that an I-Thou consciousness is present, the anxiety is lower, thus, the potential for high levels of creativity, compassion and excellence increases. Jesus models this I-Thou way. I-Thou, compassion, creativity, excellence and authentic acts of kindness are rooted in secure being and grow out of love and acceptance of self and others. Another option or choice is to invite resistance in others through an I-It way that dishonors or even shames people and treats them as if they are insignificant, as if they are objects (I-It). The anxiety that stifles genuine creativity and excellence is often in direct proportion to the level of the I-It attitude in an individual and community. I-It is driven by insecurity, anxiety, shame, coercion, reactivity, resistance and self-absorption. I-It emerges out of fear, mistrust and at times, indifference toward the other. Rather than getting stuck in old, destructive patterns of anger or selfishness or shame or greed or self-absorption or jealousy or envy or destructive use of power or cut-off, we can find creative ways of responding or changing our choice of habits/reactions and resistance, especially the habits of our thoughts. We can find an I-Thou path embracing creativity and compassion. Jesus models a different way. I believe he models and invites us to dare a path of I-Thou awareness, creativity and compassion. He believes, as humans, we have the capacity to choose this alternative path. A mother can be creative in terms of how she speaks to her child. A teacher can be creative in terms of how he or she conveys information to students. A minister can be creative in the way he or she responds to a parishioner who is resisting or acting out against him or her. A lay-person can be creative in the way she/he responds to a minister with whom he or she disagrees. A person buying a cup of coffee can be creative in the way he or she speaks to the person working behind the counter, even if that person is resistant or acting rude. When a congregation is not responding in the manner the clergy person thinks they should, he or she can be grace-filled, instead of shame filled, and through creative engagement, find compassionate, I-Thou ways to engage, converse and respond. When I can see people in an I-Thou way, it makes space for creativity and compassion and life becomes a co-creation, an art form, giving our days and the people we encounter a richness that is the opposite of boredom and seeing people as objects for our or the system’s use/desire (I-It). I-Thou, creativity and compassion also give us a healthy flexibility and adaptability to how we relate to the world around us. After facilitating a seminar on Living and Leading from an I-Thou Place, I remember visiting with a minister. He began to talk about a conflict he was having with a leader in the congregation where he served. He was not the kind of person from whom I was expecting to hear such reflective thinking. We talked about the situation for a little while, and the last thing he said was, “I’m just trying now not to have bad thoughts about this person. I am trying not to make this person an It. I am trying to figure out the loving, responsible thing to be and do.” What a creative and compassionate response to an everyday situation. This minister was living in the space about which Frankl speaks, “the space between stimulus and response. “ In this sacred space lies our potential for soulful engagement, growth, responsibility, freedom and from this moist, fertile soil blooms the I-Thou encounter between and among us. In the previous illustration, many of us (at least my tendency) would be to go over and over the argument in our minds, finding ways to justify our point of view and tear apart the argument and behavior of the other. We would be making them an object or a person of less worth. Maybe we’d apologize or make up eventually, but there would be a bruise, and it would take awhile for the blood beneath the skin to fade away. But here was an ordinary minister who’d come up with an extraordinary response to his domestic, upset situation. Being alive in human form is a constant opportunity and invitation to be in an I-Thou way of the heart, acting and being compassionate and creative. Every day, every minute, we’re presented with situations good and bad, easy and difficult, mundane and exceptional. In those situations, we have a choice of how we will be toward another. Another of my favorite writers, Thomas Merton, used the phrase, “the perfection of freedom.” I think what this means is that, even given the limitations we are born into, we always have perfect freedom in terms of how we respond to people and situations. We are growing in love. We can break our old, negative patterns. We can build on our positive ones. We can learn new ways to be toward and do in old things. “A human being is a deciding being,” according to Victor Frankl. We can use our time creatively and compassionately that can lead to our reaching a new level of I-Thou awareness in service of God and our fellow human being. Jesus challenges us to love others as ourselves and according to the golden rule, to treat them and ourselves accordingly. But first, we have to value and love ourselves. It is not fair to expect the I-Thou of ourselves in every encounter. Even Buber thought an unblemished I-Thou approach was too much to ask. According to Buber, a place exists for I-It, but not as a chronic way of being and doing. He comments, “. . .without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.” It’s probably not possible, realistic or desirable to be absolutely compassionate and marvelously creative and blindly I-Thou in every situation. We are all still growing in grace towards ourselves and one another; this is not a excuse, but a paradox and reality. In the words of the poet T.S. Eliot, “For us, there is only the trying./The rest is not our business.” I-Thou awareness, creativity and compassion embody ministry excellence as well as the art of being a fully alive human being. And all are a choice. As the poet Mary Oliver muses:

Truly, we live in a mystery too marvelous to be understood. . . Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they know the answers. Let me (us) keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads. 

Agree or disagree, we invite you into the conversation! 


Print Friendly, PDF & Email