When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.
The middle-aged grocery store clerk was puzzled for the third time by the vegetable that moved down the conveyor belt. I felt a little bad that she had to interrupt her scanning rhythm to look up the price yet again for an unknown vegetable.
After I told her what they were (leeks), I ventured “You must have to remember a lot of different vegetables”
Yup, especially since I don’t use any of the produce here. I don’t cook…
Really, how do you manage that?
In great detail she told me that her father lived with her, his health situation, her obligation to care for him, and her choice to buy only frozen food, since she only wants to prepare what she can ‘stick in the microwave’.
I tried to convey concern through understanding looks and responses, made more difficult by wearing a mask. Still, as we spoke, her face got more animated and her eyes brightened.
She revealed so much about her life to me in such a short time and in the process, made me more sensitive to her life situation. All in a few sentences, with a pitiful amount of effort.
It is so unbelievably easy to bring a little humanity into our interactions.
Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) writes about two kinds of relationships in his book I and Thou. First is the type he identifies as a transactional relationship, which tends to be utilitarian. You’re just a waiter/teller/cashier/delivery person) so I don’t really need to interact with you. What can you do for me? I don’t have time, but just give me the bill/receipt/total/message.
Buber calls this type the “I – It” relationship and describes it as ‘monological’, meaning each person is talking at someone, not really with someone. It’s like a conversation we might have with a bot in a chat box. Each party says what they want to say, and nothing about the interaction contains any personal recognition.
This one-way ‘broadcast’ honors neither the speaker or the listener.
However, the “I-Thou” relationship is one that Buber calls “dialogical”; when two people relate to each other beyond the one-dimensional. They honor each other as people made in the Image of God —B’tzelem Elokim. The highest form of this relationship is when we converse with God.
The people in the relationship recognize the holy in each other, and that special quality is a palpable sacred presence when two people get together. God is the electricity that surges between them when two people relate to each other authentically and humanly.
It is the meeting not just of two entities, but of two souls.
Questions you might want to ask
Think about the relationships in your life. How would you describe them using this paradigm?
What about the quality of your relationships would you consider to be sacred?
What might hold you back from relating in this way?
For the full text of Buber’s I and Thou, click here. https://archive.org/details/IAndThou_572/mode/2up
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