I have tried and failed twice to read Martin Buber’s timeless text, “I and Thou.” The first time, recommended by a therapist in 1999, I couldn’t find a copy of the book. The second time, I struggled through the first 10 pages and gave up. Like all of the most important books of my life, it sat unread on the shelf for years. The third time was a charm…. It took me five hours to read the fifty pages of Part I, but I’m fine with that.
Buber writes in a way that is nebulous and painstaking to read (apparently even in its original German), but one eventually groks a profound message.
Here’s my interpretation of it. I don’t claim that it’s a correct interpretation. It may be largely flawed or even wholly incorrect. It’s simply my understanding of it and how it can change your life and your marriage or romantic relationship in particular.
Two ways of being
Buber’s premise is that there are two fundamental attitudes, or ways we can approach the world or life. We can relate to the world of “It” or to the world of “You.” These relationships are referred to as the I-It or I-You relationship.
The I-It world is concrete, limited, necessary, basic. It is the world of day to day reality. The way we relate to most things and people in our daily lives is in I-It relationship. For example, when we have a conversation that serves a purpose, like making a decision about what to have for dinner, we are in an I-It relationship with the other with whom we are conversing. In these relationships we have “experiences.” We experience feelings, thoughts, and sensations here. We make decisions, imagine things, and have interactions all day long in the I-It world. As humans, this constitutes a large part of our lives.
However, if it is all we do, we will have robbed ourselves of the best part of being human; we will have simply been bystanders. In Buber’s words, “if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.”
The encounter: Where the magic happens
In the I-You relationship on the other hand, you do not have an “experience,” but rather, an “encounter.” Experiences happen to a person, but an encounter happens between people (or between a person and nature, or a person and the divine). It’s interactive, reciprocal. It cannot happen without the full participation and full presence of each. It’s an “all-in” kind of interaction. In the I-It world there is distance, remoteness, boundaries. In the I-You world, we are unguarded, the relationship unmediated.
An encounter is outside the realm of day to day reality. It’s ephemeral, eternal, ungraspable. It’s often referred to by Buber as a “confrontation,” implying that it’s not easy but rather a challenge and a risk. By comparison, the I-It world is mundane, predictable, and safe.
An encounter changes you. In fact, it is the path to discovering the true self. Without the encounter, you only know yourself as an It. But when you have encounter after encounter, you become more and more fully alive, fully aware of your true nature.
An encounter cannot be ordered into happening, he says, but happens by grace.
I believe the poet Adrienne Rich is referring to the zone of the encounter:
Prospective Immigrants Please Note
Either you will go through this door or you will not go through.
If you go through there is always the risk of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly and you must look back and let them happen.
If you do not go through it is possible to live worthily, to maintain your attitudes, to hold your position, to die bravely but much will blind you, much will evade you, at what cost, who knows?
The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.
Here’s one of my favorite illustrations, my motto even, that simplifies it even more. The I-You relationship is where the magic happens.
So what’s the point?
Buber’s message is this: we can collect “experiences” and treat them as if they’re the real deal, but experience is cheap. “All actual life is encounter.” I love this: all actual life. We can go on believing, convincing ourselves, that life is just a collection of mundane moments. And we often like to because it’s safer, more predictable, and easier that way. It’s a way of minimizing pain and suffering. But actual life is in those moments when we take a risk— the risk of connecting deeply with someone, the risk letting go, the risk of surrendering into nothingness— and something amazing happens.
In encounters with nature, people report moments of feeling the universal web of unity, feeling that everything is one. In encounters with music, people report feelings of timelessness and suspension between worlds and oneness with the music. In encounters with people, we see someone in their wholeness, and they see us.
Namaste: “I see and honor the divine in you as well as in myself.” We feel we have seen into each others souls and what we see resonates with us.
When I think about the collection of these moments in my own life, they are the foundation of what has given my life meaning. They are what sustain me through the hard times and what give me the sense that life is beautiful, even at its ugliest. They are what leave me feeling like I can die and it’s ok…because I have lived.
Aliveness in marriage
Buber came to understand all of this through the lens of his marriage. What does an encounter in a marriage look like? There is a woman with whom I have been studying who has made a life study of this in the laboratory of her 51 year marriage. She is an expert in creating the conditions between two people that are most likely to result in grace granting an encounter.
Her name is Hedy Schleifer. You can google her and watch her TED talk. You can do Encounter Centered couples Therapy with her. If you do, it will change your marriage.
I cannot do justice to her work in just a few words. However, I can say this: the next time you come face to face with a frustration, disappointment, or “problem” in your relationship (problem is in quotes because there are no problems, only opportunities)…what will you do?
Will you show up or will you hide? Will you show up with vulnerability, with curiosity and gratitude for the otherness of your partner, and with good will? Or will you hide behind mean words, anger, or blame? Will you show up in the present moment with your whole self, risking a possible encounter? Or will you hide behind your story, which only lives in the past, in the It world?
Buber says, “one has feelings, but love occurs.” It occurs between You and I. When You and I both show up fully in the present moment, open and authentic, taking the risk to tell the truth and seeing each other as whole beings, magic happens. Love happens. “Love does not cling to an I…it is between I and You.” Love is not in the I-It world, it is of the I-You world. What we often call love is just a shadow of real love. Real love isn’t for the faint of heart.
“The It is the chrysalis, the You, the butterfly.” Will you take the risk of shedding your cocoon in the service of having an encounter and ushering your marriage into aliveness?