I-Thou

Martin Buber, the eminent Jewish theologian, wrote about two basic kinds of relationships. The first is the “I–it” relationship, in which we do not treat people as people, but as things to be used. We manipulate people to accomplish our desired ends. We use them to reach our goals. The second relationship he wrote about was the “I–Thou” relationship in which we treat others as human beings to be loved and cared about.

I am very much afraid that most human relationships fall into the “I-It” category. We have learned very well how to get things done. We move people around and manipulate them to accomplish our desired purposes, but we don’t get to know them as people. We do not touch beneath the surface level of “How are you today?” “Fine, thank you, how are you?”

We go through the motions without really seeing or touching one another. Someone once likened us to a bag of marbles: close together spatially, but touching one another only at the outside edges. When we do that we are missing life. We are missing the joy of being human.

I am afraid this sort of thing happens at home as well as at work. Think about how much of our time and energy at home is spent getting things done. The shopping, cooking, cleaning, repairing, improving, building, bill paying, carpooling, problem solving, TV watching, Facebooking. I could go on and on. I wonder what will happen in homes if all our tasks suddenly were taken from us and we had to spend all our time relating. What would we do?

For all too many families, it would be totally unique experience. So much of what we call “being together” involves being together spatially or functionally, but not emotionally. Even in families, we often do not touch except at the outer edges. We keep even our loved ones at arms length. Oh, we may spend time together. We may get things done in cooperation with one another, but we do not touch inner depth. Even when we are in the presence of one another we feel alone. A man said recently about his husband, “He is always 1,000 miles away. He will not let anyone close to him beyond the level of friendly exchange: me, his parents, even God.”

When I talk about relationship, I am talking about being with someone and not just alongside them. I am talking about the experience of risking openness with someone, the experience of touching beneath the surface. It is the experience of knowing that whatever is the deepest truth about your life, you can share it and know that it is okay, that you will be loved and cared about anyway.

Such an experience is an experience of incredible intimacy. It is the most life-giving experience in the world. It is what life is all about, and it is far too important to be so rare!

I pray you come to know that level of love if you have not known it yet. It is what makes life worth living.


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