One of my favorite books is I and Thou, written by Austrian philosopher Martin Buber in 1937 and translated by Walter Kaufmann in 1970. The work relates Buber’s stance on the range of ways people treat one another, and how this reflects their view of the world.
According to Buber, we look at others in one-on-one encounters as “It”, “You”, or “Thou”.
Most often, we talk to people as if they are an “It” or an object. We do this to maintain order and a sense of control in our lives. We work with them, laugh with them, argue with them, and even sleep with them without experiencing them. When they can no longer give us what we need, relationships end.
Although the English translations substitutes the words “You” for “Thou”, thinking of someone as “You” still infers a boundary between us, an inability to fully connect.
If we look at others as “Thou” we are seeing them as beautiful, divine beings. We don’t see God in you. We see God as you. Many primitive cultures (those we often see as poor but they see themselves as rich) describe all creatures and objects as a part of the divine. The Kaffir tribe in Africa greet each other saying, “I see you” meaning I see you fully, as a spiritual being from the inside out. As a result, we can establish a genuine dialogue that bridges differences in ages, culture, backgrounds, and opinions. We make every interactions into a sacred union. From this comes true creativity as we allow others to fearlessly release themselves and their passions into the world.
THE PROBLEM: The busier we are, the more time we spend communicating through machines, and the greater is our focus on accumulating wealth, power, and possessions, the less time we make to truly connect with each other.
However, we need to make “Thou” connections to be happy. We come to know ourselves in the eyes of others, and feel strength and value when someone addresses us and hears our words with full acknowledgment. Additionally, we come to know the full delicious experience of being alive when we fully engage the present moment, including the people in our space.
In business, the employees who feel listened to, who feel fully valued and significant, perform at their best. The customers who feel acknowledged and cared about declare loyalty and more easily forgive price increases and errors. The best leaders balance their plans for profit and power with actions that honor the needs of the employees, customers and community.
You may logically agree, but why don’t these words play out in today’s world? For one, viewing people as worthy of our love is scary. We leave ourselves open to rejection. Secondly, as we progress, the more we see people as a means to get what we want (status, wealth, love, safety) instead of an end (the relationship for its own sake). Not that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves and strive for success, but we often do so at the expense of instead of partnering with others.
A side effect of relating to Thou is the love we feel in the process. It is truly a heart-opening experience. And it is truly a terrifying experience. We feel as if we are losing control. We fear having to look honestly at ourselves. Is it worth the effort? Only you can decide.
THE SOUL-UTION: If you choose to accept this mission, the first step is to work on being present in each glorious moment, searching for the simple beauty that is life. You need to quiet your busy mind and allow yourself to feel life. You need to approach each moment with no memory, to see details and people as if you had never seen them before. As William Blake wrote, “To see the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower.” In this space we too, become one.
Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be?” Then, he asked, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” And finally, “If not now, when?” When will be the good time to judge the importance of the quality of our relationships as greater than the quantity of our accomplishments in life?