Removing Walls: A Story of Removing Walls and Moving to an I-Thou Way

Dr. W. Craig Gilliam cgilliam@justpeaceumc.org JustPeace Staff CollectiveWe live in a mystery to marvelous to be understood.  ~~Mary Oliver

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense, Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”

~~Robert Frost, Mending Wall

“This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

~~Jesus, quoted in John 15:12

“Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time.”

~~John Paul Lederach

Beatrice was a 90-year-old woman, full of life, a force in nature. As a creative artist, she was courageously honest and highly expressive.  She was a beautiful person who lived to over 100 years of age.  In her unique and eccentric ways, she lived until she died.  At 90, she tells the following story about her encounter with another.  I invite you to listen to the way she moves from an I-It place to an I-Thou place.  The story is:

“We meet people with walls.  And I think it is important to meet people without walls.”  In the lines of the poet Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/that wants it down.”  Beatrice recognized her desire to want walls down that separate us from others.

“Now I was ill and had to be in the hospital 3 days, mostly to rest, alright.

“I found myself with an old hag in the next bed, I think more or less toothless, with an accent.

“Now I needed to sleep, so I went to sleep, and this poor creature chatted and chatted and I was mad.”  (You get the flavor by her speech.  She was honest and straightforward about where she was and what she felt toward the other in the room.)

Then Beatrice comments, “The next day, after I had a little rest I said to myself, I am not nice to this poor woman.  She needs someone to talk to.  I must be decent to her. . .

“So when afternoon came, I got off my high horse and listened to her. “  Her story was that she had a heart attach.  She was all alone and in a state of crisis.  I saw this.  I listened to her.

“The next day I was leaving.  I had whipped myself into some kind of decency, so I sat on her bed and talked to her.”  I said, ‘Look, I will speak to the doctor about you.  When I leave I will phone you everyday.’ And that meant something to her.  So I left.”

“The next morning I phoned and talked to her and said, ‘I will call you tomorrow.  Don’t worry, I will keep in touch with you.’  I said this ‘cause she felt absolutely bereft and alone.”

“The next day, I took a trip.  Coming back I was terribly tired, and I said to myself, ‘I must go see that old woman.’  I didn’t want to, but I went.  And I sat on her bed.  She appreciated that I, a stranger, was befriending her.  I sat on her bed, I took her hand, I looked at her and this ugly old woman, to my astonishment, was beautiful.  There was no wall between us.  It was a wonderful experience for me.”

“You see, we are all really one, and the oneness between us, I touched.  So when I left, I said good-bye, and the next morning when I phoned, they said, ‘You cannot reach her.  She died during the night.’”

“And it was so wonderful for me because I was sure she died knowing someone cared.  Now, you see the arrogance of the artist who did not want to be disturbed.  I threw that into the trash can, and without a wall, met another human being and that ugly human being became beautiful and this is one of the most important experiences and lessons of my life.”

In her story, Beatrice, by degrees, allowed the truth to affect her.  She comments, “I am not nice to this poor woman, . . . I must be decent to her;  . . . I got off my high horse and listened to her; I sat on her bed and talked to her;  I said this cause she felt absolutely bereft and alone.”  The other woman is slowly becoming a person to Beatrice.  Beatrice was beginning to see the other as human being (I-Thou).  Coming back from her trip, at age 90, Beatrice says that she was tired and didn’t want to go.  This indicator suggests that fatigue might not have much to do with the I-Thou way of the heart/soul toward another.  In fact, I-It is more associated with exhaustion and life depleting enterprises.  Beatrice says, “She must go see that old woman.  I didn’t want to but I went.” She felt she must do go.

Something about what had already happened drew Beatrice out of her self-absorption and invited her to be herself—a sensitive, responsive human being living from in an I-Thou way towards another. When she went to visit the old woman, she writes, “to my astonishment, this ugly woman was beautiful.”

We can think of this situation as a back and forth reciprocity where first, Beatrice does something, then the other, as if giving cues for responses.  That is not altogether wrong or bad.

I suggest another way to think about it.  When we, like Beatrice, cease to wall ourselves off from each other, when we start responding to one another in this I-Thou/JustPeace way of mutuality, we are no longer isolated or cut-off, but we become a kind of unit, unity or oneness.  As we listen to another and begin to understand his/her story, it is harder to keep the walls up.  My experience is that there is nothing like encountering another’s genuine humanity to brake the walls down that divide us.  Beatrice discovered, as do we, that the other ugly person, too, becomes beautiful.  This oneness about which we speak is living and dynamic.  Each of us, in a certain way, forms a oneness, a unity or a wholeness—all made in the image of God, in all our likenesses and differences.  We are separate, yet one.

We are a circuit board wired into life; vitality flows through, among and between us. Collusions are currents that grow out of the reciprocal nature of all relationships.  Collusions can be a negative current, where we help create the I-It relationships and situations that we say we dislike.

Collusion can also be positive—we can help create that which is positive, like Beatrice and this other woman.  Beatrice helped create the I-It relationship, but in her honesty and courage, she used her agency and chose to move beyond the I-It to an I-Thou way, a JustPeace way.  As a result, she encountered what she described as “one of the most important and beautiful lessons of her life.”

Jesus was one that came and offered us a different way of seeing and being.  He said, “You have heard, but I say to you. . .”  He is inviting us to a different way of seeing and being with ourselves and each other.  Jesus models I-Thou.  After all, ministry is about relationship, or in Martin Buber’s contrast, inter-human betweenness, reciprocity and two-sided mutuality. While the technical is important, the relational way of being is central to deep, soulful ministry and influence.  “Love God with all our hearts, minds and souls and our neighbors as ourselves.”  Ministry is about relationships;  “All actual life is encounter/meeting,” Buber remarks.  In each situation, we have agency to choose between living more in an I-Thou or I-It way.  The choice is not about them, but us/me.

You and I are created in the image of God with gifts and graces, voice and values.  When I meet you in an I-Thou way, I help you rediscover this image in yourself and I rediscover it in myself as well.  Together we walk, discovering our voice and value.  In Buber’s words, “I become as I meet Thou.”  The Christ in me meets the Christ in you.  This is an I-Thou/JustPeace way over and against a chronic I-It objectifying path.  Do we dare to choose? Thanks!

  • What is your story about moving from an I-It way of the heart/soul with another to an I-Thou way?
  • How do you see and encounter the I-Thou or Christ in another?
  • Is there a time when someone you knew that was ugly, after time, became beautiful?  How did it happen?
  • How do you draw upon these experiences in your ministry and life to live out of that I-Thou place?
  • If you were living the values you claim, what would your story look like?

Agree or disagree, we invite you into the conversation.

“Getting hold of the difficulty “down deep” is hard.  Because, if it is grasped near the surface, it simply remains the difficulty it was.  It has to be pulled out by the roots; and that involves our beginning to think about these things in a new way.  The change is as decisive as, for example, that from the alchemical to the chemical way of thinking.  The new way of thinking is what is so hard to establish.  Once the new way has been established, the old problems vanish, they become hard to recapture.”

~~Ludwig Wittgenstein

~~Words for Reflection~~ Connecting and Listening to their Humanity

“I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is.  And how we forget it.  And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love.  And least of all—which is so important too—to those we do not love.  But we should.  Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force . . . . This is the reason:  When we are listening to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.  Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life . . . . Who are the people, for example, to whom you go for advice?  Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people you know.  It is because by pouring out your problem to them you then know what to do about it yourself . . . .So try listening.  Listen to your wife, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don’t; to those who bore you; to your enemies.  It will work a small miracle—and perhaps a great one.”

~~Brenda Ueland

Human being
may I not
forget you
in all
this talk
of God.

~~Alice Walker

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