An Exploration of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”

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Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou” is an inquiry into how our relationships with others shape our reality. His main thesis, which runs throughout the course of the book, is that there are two different modes in which we encounter the world, namely through ‘I-It’ or ‘I-Thou’ relationships.

Let’s take a closer look at these concepts in more detail.

I-IT

I-It relationships are entered into to achieve some sort of external goal or purpose. Through these type of encounters we engage others with the intent and expectation of attaining some gain or benefit. For those familiar with the language of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, people are treated as means to achieve an end.

With the rise of political and economic bureaucracies, shift towards urbanization and the proliferation of global corporations of the modern era, I-IT relationships have become the predominant mode of interaction in our day to day lives.

They arise when mass institutions transform individuals into mere objects. Consequently, we become subsumed by our particular roles that we play within society.

Think of how politicians look at individuals as voters or companies view the general public as consumers. Moreover, the complexity and uniqueness of each human is stripped away when we see the statistics of those who have passed away from the ongoing pandemic.

As Buber writes,

Institutions yield no public life; feelings, no personal life. That institutions yield no public life is felt by more and more human beings, to their sorrow: this is the source of the distress and search of our age.

Of note, Buber recognizes that at some level I-It relationships are needed for modern society to function. Increased efficiency brought about by socioeconomic institutions have resulted in great material improvement and increased quality of life. However, he warns that living life and existing exclusively in the I-It mode ultimately leads to alienation. Our longing for genuine relationships goes unmet and we consequently feel disconnected and separated from others and the world around us.   

I-THOU

On the contrary, the I-Thou relationship is based on mutuality, empathy and being together with someone or something in the present moment. These encounters transcend analytic thought and the categories or roles we assign to others. In these moments, we see individuals as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ or as ends in themselves. Namely, in this mode of existence we see the beauty and complexity of another human being. 

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experience world. Not as a thing among the ‘internal’ things, not as a figment of the ‘imagination’, but as what is present.

Although temporary and fleeting, these moments are entered into with one’s full presence and attention. Those involved in the I-Thou relationship are mutually transformed and become merged into the experience and life of the other.

We are momentarily put into the shoes of someone else and see the world as they do.

I-Thou moments are not limited to encounters with other humans but can be extended to being in relation with nature or other sentient beings. Writing from the tradition of Jewish Hassidism, Buber notes that the ultimate I-Thou connection, which he calls the Eternal Thou, is to be in relation with God.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

For those interested in ‘I and Thou’ I must admit that at times it was a difficult read. Buber writes in aphorisms using poetic and esoteric language that requires one to go over the text a couple of times to understand.

Nonetheless, I found that the concepts explored in the book are increasingly relevant in our hyper technological age. With the advent of social media and exposure to 24/7 news outlets, it is easy to look at other humans as just statistics, numbers or likes on our Instagram posts. Through this type of thinking, we fail to realize the common humanity and uniqueness of others. Each being on this planet is as complex and interesting as each and everyone of us.

‘I and Thou’ reminds us that a much deeper and authentic type of relationship can exists of others. When we see the world as someone else does. When our ‘self’ transcends our body and becomes merged with the world around us. We can’t live forever in these moments, but we can always be prepared for when the next moment arises.

True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is lived in the past

Martin Buber, I and Thou
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

*Quotes taken in the article are from the Walter Kaufmann translation of the book.

The Polarization Series: The Power of Listening

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Amidst the rise in digital technologies and new avenues for communication, the general quality of our public discourse has declined. As I have explored in this series, modern society has become increasingly fragmented and polarized. We are no longer able to search for areas of compromise or entertain opposing viewpoints.

The cause of the issue stems from our inability to truly listen to one another. In a culture that promotes individualism and self-righteousness, we are conditioned to enter into conversations with our own agenda, set of prejudices and biases. Rather than engage in the mutual pursuit of truth, we are more interested in pushing our opinion and influence onto others.

This mindset inhibits us from truly listening to and appreciating what others are saying. It blocks us off from other perspectives limiting the possibility of entering into a conversation openly, with the chance of changing our minds.

The physicist David Bohm makes an important distinction between dialogue and discussion, highlighting the key differences in these two modes of communication.

Dialogue vs. Discussion

Dialogue is centered around the shared flow of meaning and understanding between all those who are involved. The point is not to try to ‘win’ or ensure that your argument prevails, but rather to mutually search for collective wisdom and truth. This requires one to be adaptable and flexible, accepting that your original views may be wrong or ill-informed.

Good dialogue is sort of like jazz. It revolves around improvisation and spontaneity. Throughout their solos, each musician integrates the melody and phrases of the other band mates. It is a dynamic and collective process. The success of the band is determined by how well the musicians are in synch with one another. This demands that everyone listen closely to the tempo of the drums, the key of the band and the melodies of the other soloists.

Like jazz, the point of dialogue is to build off of the ideas of others, to be open-minded and fully listen to what is being said. When done correctly, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a win-win process for all participants involved – everyone gains.

On the other hand, Bohm characterizes discussions as communication which is aimed at preserving one’s point of view. Those engaging in a discussion are motivated towards persuading others to change their minds. As a result, it is framed more as a debate embodying win-lose dynamics, as the purpose is to have your viewpoint adopted by the group.

There is a time and place for each of these conversational styles. However, social cohesion is undermined and conflicts arise when our discourse becomes increasingly centered around debate, conflict and argumentation.

A consequence of this type of thinking is that we aren’t fully attentive to what others are saying. Further, we don’t validate or clarify that we have a mutual understanding of another’s point of view, leaving room for error and misinterpretation.

As noted by the renowned physicist David Bohm in his book On Dialogue,

Surprisingly, most people have never discovered how to listen, and instead spend most of the time whilst another is speaking working out what to say the moment he or she stops

Listening

To listen attentively or mindfully, is to be completely immersed in the conversation. It is to be aware of our automatic judgements, refrain from interjection and practice empathy. Just as in the practice of meditation where we mindfully and impartially watch our thoughts pass by, a genuine dialogue requires us to do the same when conversing with someone else.

The objective is to be aware and in control of your thoughts, feelings and emotions refraining from being reactive to the situation. It is to engage with openness and be receptive to what the other person is saying.  

When disagreements do arise, research indicates that changing someone’s mind is both rare and difficult. However, techniques do exist to help you navigate through conflict and arguments.

There is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattle-snakes and earthquakes.

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication focuses on how we can navigate through disagreements through empathy and mutual understanding.

Underneath adversarial language and conflict, lies someone with unmeet human needs. Regardless of who we are, we all have a set of foundational human needs such as health, love, respect, trust etc. The issue is that rather than explicitly communicating these unmet needs, we direct our attention towards criticizing others or defending our views on a topic.

 A good metaphor to think of here is an iceberg. What’s visible to us is the immediate disagreement, while what’s uncovered is a broader set of phycological factors affecting and issues one’s mood and behavior.

Encouraging honesty and transparency, Rosenberg identifies four communication techniques to help us when dealing with difficult circumstances:

  1. Observation: Observe what you notice about the situation objectively and nonjudgmentally.
  2.  Feelings: Express our emotions and feelings clearly and in a thoughtful way.
  3.  Needs: Make a connection between the identified feelings and your unmet human needs. You may feel upset or angry at someone because their actions violated your needs of honesty and connection.
  4. Requests:  Make a specific request in a compassionate manner to rectify the situation based on the feelings and needs you have communicated. Of note, requests are never demanded. Rather, they are asked from a place of mutual understanding and respect for the other person.

All criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message. The more we practice in this way, the more we realize a simple truth: behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being. When we receive messages with this awareness, we never feel dehumanized by what others have to say to us

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Conclusion

Genuine dialogue and discourse demands a shift from egotistical thinking to a focus on the collective wellbeing, emotions and needs of others. It changes the focus from the content of the conversation to the underlying feelings that are driving one’s behavior and attitude. Only through bringing awareness to the factors and emotions influencing our behavior can we begin to notice and change them.

As we chisel away at our own egos and silence the need to be right all the time, we can start to become more open and empathetic to the needs of others.

After all, we are all humans trying to live collectively on one planet. So rather than being prisoners to our automatic thoughts and emotions, we can all temporarily pause, take a deep breath and try to show some more compassion.

At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Throughout the past year I’ve been introduced to different communication modalities from platforms like The Stoa and Rebel Wisdom, some of these include:

  1. The Circling Method
  2. Empathy Circles
  3. John Vervaeke’s work on Dialogos

Title Image Source

Book Review: Yes to Life by Victor E. Frankl

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One of the most fundamental truths in life is that we all will face our respective share of hardship, difficulty and suffering. We are fragile mortal beings subject to illness, loss, heartbreak and disappointment.

Given this shared fate, how can we best endure and embrace our adversities?

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything is a compilation of lectures given by Victor Frankl in 1946, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust. Speaking from direct experience from his time in the concentration camps, as well as from his insights working as a psychologist, Frankl reflects on the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life.

This short yet profound book reminds us of the power of perspective, demonstrating how we can always find the resilience we need within to keep on moving forward in any circumstance.

In this post I want to look at three key themes from the book.  

Meaning Is More Important Than Pleasure

Pleasure itself cannot give our existence meaning

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

Our modern consumerist societies try to sell us on the idea that happiness can be bought. Savvy advertisements persuade us consumers that contentment and fulfillment in life can be realized only when we purchase that luxury car or piece of clothing.

After all, just look at how happy that family is driving the latest Mercedes SUV in that commercial?

Although these consumer goods may give us short-term satisfaction, the excitement quickly dissipates as we are left craving for more.

Frankl argues that while pleasure comes and goes, it is meaning in life that allows us to endure and overcome the challenges we succumb to. By having an overarching purpose or meaning in one’s life, we can find long lasting fulfillment. This is what truly nourishes and sustains us.

Frankl notes that although meaning can be found in a wide range of circumstances, it generally falls into three broad categories:

  1. Active: Creating, acting upon or bringing something into existence. This can include devoting oneself to their work, or pursuing one’s hobbies and passion projects.  
  2. Passive:  Appreciating the world around us, namely through art, nature or by loving others.
  3. Acceptance: Finding meaning and growth through accepting one’s difficulties and putting them into perspective. Frankl echoes the Stoic maxim that while many of the circumstances in our life are outside of our control, we always have the freedom to decide how we react to and interpret these events.  

Authenticity

In his specific life circle, every single human being is irreplaceable and inimitable, and that is true for everyone. The task that his life imposes are only for him, and only he is required to fulfill them.

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

For Frankl, meaning in life is not an inquiry that can be answered broadly or generally. Given the difference in life situations and demands for every individual, there is no ‘one’ answer that is adequate or applicable to everyone.

Rather, each of our lives poses a distinct set of questions that require answers. Every new beginning, adversity or challenge presents an opportunity to find meaning. It is through our unique answers to life’s questions that we find purpose and become authentic human beings – separating ourselves from the crowd.

We must therefore always be aware of how we can use each occasion we are presented to in life as a potential learning experience or lesson. Each of these moments, offers us chance to use it as fuel in working towards a greater goal.

As Frankl writes,

We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. 

Through becoming authentic individuals, we can come to a greater appreciation of what we can distinctly offer the world.  

Being irreplaceable, it is only ‘you’ who can offer humanity your unique gifts.

Taking Responsibility for Life  

At every moment I bear responsibility for the next; that every decision from the smallest to the largest is a decision for all eternity

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

We all desire freedom, but very few of us want to take on the responsibility for our actions.  

It is true that each of us are dealt different cards in life. We all have experiences where things don’t go our way, when we are treated unfairly or succumb to an illness out of mere chance.  

However, in each of these circumstances what can be more powerful than embracing, overcoming and saying ‘yes to life’. Of course, you didn’t choose this, maybe the predicament you are in wasn’t even your fault, but nonetheless you have two options – you can either change it or accept it.

By accepting the responsibility and burdens of life’s duties, we gradually become more resilient. We grow in courage and in character – one small step at a time.

Conclusion

Yes to Life is a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Amidst even the most dire of situations, we can always find a reason to keep pushing through.

In an increasingly complex and fast-paced world, the future remains riddled with uncertainty. Rather than placing our hopes on external things which we don’t control, Frankl reminds us that we are always free to cultivate one’s inner life. Finding meaning, purpose and perspective in every situation is something that cannot be taken away from us.

To say ‘yes to life’ is to nurture an attitude of acceptance, and continue to hold your ground in the eye of the storm.

This of course is not for the faint of heart, but we can all look to Victor Frankl for inspiration.

 

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

A wonderful review on Yes to Life which inspired me to read this book can be found on brainpickings.org here.