Buber by Jane St. Clair
The other day I came across a machine that gives out ice cream.
I was surprised to see a sign on it that said,”Like Us on Facebook,”
as if you could be friends with an ice cream machine on Facebook.
Then I thought about Martin Buber’s beautiful book, “I and Thou.” Usually I only think about this book when I am in nature, but someone it fit the ice cream machine situation as well.
Buber’s work isn’t easy to read, especially if you try to “think” it rather than “feel” it. His book is like scripture that way — very poetic, very intense, and only difficult if you don’t open your heart to it. You feel and do Buber rather than read him intellectually.
Buber has several really revolutionary ideas that seem more relevant today than when he wrote them a half-century ago.
His big idea is that we either experience or encounter. Most of the time we are in our ego-mode, and we simply have experiences.We experience everything as an “it,” the way an ice cream machine is. We depersonalize everything and name it all “it” or that which is other than me. We slice and dice things. We make them useful. We give them purpose. The “I-It” way of viewing the world is not bad because it helps us survive. Yet the “I-It” experience is what makes us feel alienated and crazy all the time. We never feel part of our own world. We’re always walking around alone and detached, and figuring out how to use the people and things we come across.
On the other hand, when we encounter another being as a “you” or “thou,” we feel something akin to love.
We feel that our own spirit is the same as the “thou” of the person in front of us. We sense a cosmic force that is always with us, the force that Buber calls love. We can have I-Thou encounters not only with other human beings, but also with animals, flowers, rocks, the sky … whatever. Every I-Thou encounter connects us to something other than ourselves. Every I-Thou encounter opens our hearts to the ultimate encounter with the “Thou” of the universe, the God of Love.
The friend who first gave me Buber’s book had battled polio, which left him with a withered leg. He felt that those people who stared at his withered leg turned him into an “it,” rather than a “thou.” He wanted people to see him as a thou, as a person, and not as the guy with the peg leg.
My friend taught me that when we perceive someone as different or put the person into some category, we lose the I-Thou encounter that is so important, even vital, to our souls.
So going back to the ice cream machine … Maybe this machine makes people happy on a hot Arizona day. They look forward to seeing him, they appreciate the cold wonderful treats he gives to them. They think of him as a thou, even as their friend. I think Mr. Buber would like them back.
If you’re interested in Martin Buber’s book, read more at I and Thou on goodreads.