Almost any behavior can be done in two ways or from two stances or attitudes toward life and other— I-Thou or an I-It as Martin Buber frames it. I-Thou values the other as a person created in the image of God and is open to and responds to their humanity and needs, wanting what is best for the other person. I-It is seeing the other as an object, the process of objectifying the other.
When we talk about I-Thou or I-It, we are talking about something deeper than behavior, but a stance toward life. The deeper way to which we are referring is the way we see others in our heart or soul, the way we are toward other(s). Two ways of the heart/soul toward others are I-Thou or I-It. I am not suggesting a dichotomy, but more a continuum between these two stances. Our way of seeing others is constantly moving between these two ways of the heart. Almost any behavior can be done in either way or from either place—I-Thou or 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 correct, two ways to compliment, 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 in an I-Thou way 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 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 the level of our influence.
Even engaging conflict well or trying to invite peace can be waged either while seeing others as objects (I-It) or while seeing them as people made in the image of God (I-Thou). The narrative we tell ourselves is what helps determine the way of our souls. John Paul Lederach writes: "We live by the stories we tell about each other."
Through these stories, the pain and way of seeing are transferred multigenerational. While John Paul Lederach was talking about international conflict, the same is true in the local organization, communities, congregations and in our families. What are the stories we tell about each other, ourselves and our world? This is the in-between space where transformation occurs, the place of genuine meeting.
When my heart and soul are in an I-It way, the path to a healthy we is a lonely one. My senses are directed toward myself (or maybe toward the other). It is about my wellbeing and me. How do I feel safe? How do I look? How will I be seen? When in this place where my focus is on “I” )or "him/her/them,") 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 (or them getting theirs). When my heart and soul are focused on myself and I am in an I-It way, it not only invites resistance and conflict in others, it also invests in it. When my solutions fail, I become frustrated, hopeless, indifferent and disconnected. I begin to blame others.
When I am in an I-Thou place toward those with and to whom I minister, I know that true, lasting relationship comes not through separation but through sustained connection. My senses are directed outward. It is about them and their well-being. 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), the organization/congregation, the space between us where the We connect.
This is the path to sustainable connection and healthy we.
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. It requires doing the right thing, not necessarily the easy thing. I find when I follow my heart, it rarely steers me wrong. In most instances, if I pause to listen and to breathe, my heart, soul and body know what I need to do.
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. As I see and even experience it, there is a letting go, if I will choose.
Both commitments require that I hold myself accountable for how I am seeing others, self and God in every encounter. I no longer make excuses or craft ways to justify 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. According to Buber, “Not until a person can say I in perfect reality—that is, finding him/herself, can s/he in perfect reality say Thou—that is, to God. And even if s/he does it in a community, s/he can only do it “alone.”” Consequentially, I am no longer committed just to my own interests and wellbeing, but to the growth, wellbeing, common good and success or positive movement of We, which calls for paying attention to the space "between."
Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation.