How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?

Q, I am currently working on my thesis for an MA in counseling psychology. My thesis is on applying Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” relationship to the therapeutic situation. Although deceptively simple, an I – Thou relationship seems to have many elusive characteristics about it.

How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?

A: Before answering your question “How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?”, I think it is important to first answer the question: What is the “I and Thou” relationship? For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Buber’s concept of the ““I and Thou”,” here is a brief synopsis:

It is believed by many scholars that Buber is said to have influenced general culture more than any other Jewish thinker since the times of the prophets. Paradoxically, his own contribution to Judaism pales in comparison to the impact he has exerted in Christian theology as well as psychotherapy in general. In a sense, this is indeed tragic, for Buber intuited one of Judaism’s most profound teachings concerning revelation: the ““I and Thou”.” Though he wasn’t the most observant Jew, I do think Buber’s “I and Thou” will neatly fit within a Halachic lifestyle and philosophy.

A piece of biographical might serve to make this matter clearer. For a good part of Buber’s life he was involved heavily in the study and practice of mysticism. Many types of mysticism posit the belief that man must find his purpose in being absorbed in the Divine. Mysticism involves lost of self, a quiescence of the soul of man. To Buber, the mystic was one who surrendered his individuality. It was only later Buber came to reject this brand of mysticism.

One autumn morning, Buber experienced what he believed to be a powerful mystical experience. On a July day in 1914, a young man named Mehe’ soon to enter the army came to see him for guidance. Those were difficult days. Buber politely answered all of his guest’s questions. After the young man left, Buber felt troubled. Although he answered most of his questions, he felt that in has self-centered happiness he ignored the unarticulated question that was really troubling the young man, who didn’t know how to express his soulful query. Shortly afterwards, the young man died in battle. Though Buber managed to convince his guest of the God of the philosophers, he felt that he failed to teach him about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Buber’s private joy kept him from being intimate with the stranger. This incident led Buber to abandon mysticism as a way of dealing with the reality of the world.

This experience led Buber to reflect on the mystery and dynamics of dialogue. Buber wrote: “There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.”

Genuine dialogue, in Buber’s understanding goes beyond an exchange of words or information and establishes a mutual living relation between the dialogue partners. Authentic dialogue in this understanding is more than just a possibility in life: it is the deepest and basic way persons develop, how human life unfolds and evolves. To Buber, understanding the nature of relationship to others is essential if we are to develop an authentic human existence,

Buber pointed towards the basic dialogical dimension of human life and rejected every attempt to explain human reality in a purely I-centered interpretation: “There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and the I of the primary word I-It.” The I of the human being cannot develop without fellow human beings and the world around it, but comes into existence always through experience and relation. In the meeting with the world and fellow human beings it is, according to Buber, the attitude of the human being that plays a decisive role in the event of the two primary words I-Thou or I-It: “To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.”

This sentence about the correlation of the attitude of the human being and his experience of and relation to the world is the introductory sentence in Martin Buber’s poetic-philosophical work “I and Thou” , the first of his writings in which his dialogical thinking comes clearly to expression. It is the attitude of the human being which is co-decisive for the expression of either the sphere of I-It or I-Thou.

In the meeting of “I and Thou”, for Buber, the walls which the human beings construct thus separating one from the other are abolished, frontiers which imprison him in his ‘Weltanschauungen’ and separate him from his fellow human beings. In the thinking of Buber, the I-centered dimension of human life is the It – world of the primary word I – It, where the human being clamps himself to the armor of his concepts and systems without meeting the last and deepest dimension of human life, isolating himself from his fellow human beings and the world around him. This limiting isolation is overcome according to Buber in the Thou – world of the primary word I – Thou, in the meeting of “I and Thou”. In this meeting the human being becomes a person in the face of the Other , real dialogue takes place and the eternal Thou of God speaks to the human being in the reality of the world.

The essence of the meeting of “I and Thou” happens in the sphere of the between. This is for Buber a primal category of human reality. According to Buber, what is essential does not take place in each of the participants or in a neutral world which includes the two and all other things; but it takes place between them in the most precise sense, as it were in a dimension which is accessible only to them both.”

The event of the between is, as Buber sees it, a phenomenon which is not sufficiently explicable in psychological or sociological terms. For Buber it is an ontological event.

In poetical but nevertheless precise language, Buber describes his ontological understanding of the between: the dialogical situation can be adequately grasped only in an ontological way. But it is not to be comprehended in purely ontological categories pertaining to the nature of being of personal existence, or of that of two personal existences, but of that which has its being between them, and transcends both. On the far side of the subjective, on this side of the objective, on the narrow ridge, where “I and Thou” meet, there is the realm of ‘between’.” What transpires in the realm of the “between” determines how the Divine unfolds in our discovery of God within the Other. I should add that Emmanuel Levinas develops this particular theme much more clearly throughout his writings. Encompassing and transcending both, “I and Thou”, in the midst of the between, is the presence of the eternal Thou –Buber’s metaphor for God.

Buber came to realize that meaning come from what transpires between two people. Ideas, even spiritual ecstasy per se, and rationalism are no substitute for a direct person-to-person encounter. All meaningful God-human relationships are forged through the medium of encounter, not in the self-satisfaction of a mystical experience. The Eternal Thou is also present is present in every “ordinary” Thou we encounter in the course of a day. The spiritual-minded person must learn to see the Divine Thou is yearning to unfold within his neighbor as we shall soon see.

I and It — The Relationship of Utility

There is a big difference between the knowing of an object vis-à-vis the knowledge of person. Buber describes the knowledge of objects as an example of an “I and It” type of relationship. This type of relationship is based on the scientific knowledge of the thing comprehended. The object can be quantified, observed and manipulated at will. The person deliberately places a distance between the object being observed and himself. The level of encounter is invariably seen whenever one deals with a bureaucracy for bureaucracies aim to depersonalize the people who fall under its sway. In such a world, the only reality that matters is the realm of the “I and It.”

That is not to say that an “I and It” relationship is somehow inherently bad in and of itself. Science especially uses knowledge and objectivity to analyze and comprehend the world. Scientific reductionism to its credit has done a remarkable job in making the world a healthier place. Without an “I and It” relationship, many discoveries in medicine and other disciplines might not have developed as early as they did. Without the I and It relationship, humankind would have fallen prey to magic and superstition; he would have become a denizen of a demon-haunted world. The problem arises when the I and It relationship affects all of our relationships. When it does, our lives become very insular and lonely indeed!

In a capitalistic society such as ours, we become “consumers” whose whole lives are dedicated to the pursuit of utility and consumption. We are focused and intent not on consuming in order to live, but on living in order to consume. As Americans, we are a nation of consumers and consumption is our way of life. The spiritual problem consumerism poses is that we tend to see life and relationships (physical, emotional and spiritual) in terms of the I and It — the philosophy of utility.

The I and It relationship and wield a very destructive power that cannot see, nor understand, the Thou that of a blind, egoistic, basic attitude, which does not understand, nor sees, nor loves the Other, the Thou, is manifested. With the background of such destructively, but also remembering the genuine understanding of the Other in dialogue, remembering the true meetings contributing to the development of the persons in dialogue.

Discovering the “I and Thou”

Let’s say you go to your wife to discuss something important, and all the time you are talking, she is observing your mascara, or your lipstick, or your unkempt hair. Such an encounter can be very frustrating, since one feels shut off from this person’s love and attention. Here’s another example: People will often ask their neighbor “How are you feeling today?” and yet when they ask the question, their minds are certainly elsewhere. You know that if you try saying how you really feel, the other person will simply ignore you, so you merely reply “fine.” Even though there is some measure of social contact, genuine communication is at a bare minimum.

To experience Buber’s “I and Thou”, one must be willing to really open up to the other person. Here’s another analogy: Let’s say you’re talking a friend who really cares about your welfare and happiness. A genuine friend is emotionally present with the person he’s with. You may be inarticulate in expressing what is deeply on your mind. Your tongue is stuck to the palate of your mouth, yet you know that your friend is really listening to you. You know that his heart is attuned to your needs. This is certainly an encounter. “I and Thou” relationships frequently transcend words. Relationship demands participation, but not distance; the “I and Thou” demands the giving of heart and presence. Buber was convinced that no meaningful relationship can occur between two people if there as high degree of personal detachment. As human beings, we all share the need to have our existence confirmed and validated.

Moreover, Buber uses the “I and Thou” to describe a relationship that is intimate and personal. In such a meeting may be characterized by vulnerability, affirmation and being essentially nonjudgemental and understanding. With every authentic ” and Thou” there is a profound disclosure and revelation of the Other person. Martin Buber was convinced that life’s most “ordinary” daily encounters with people may provide the setting for appreciative spiritual growth.

Buber went on to describe how the mutual experiences of reciprocity of shared relations in which the self discovers itself in relation to the other as we see in the process of love. Love is the mysterious quality that enables two people to be intimate and one with one another, yet maintain their own sense of individuality. In an “I and Thou” relationship, one person affords the other the ability to freely grow and develop rather than using one’s influence to mold and control the other person to fit the pattern s/he would like to be True love does not demand that the beloved surrender his or her own individuality in order to be loved; this is not love but servitude. Parents do this quite a bit with their own children. “If you love me, then do such and such a thing….” Love is frequently marketed like any other commodity; book stores contain many works on how to have fulfilling sexual experiences. Love-making has frequently been reduced to a mere mechanical technique rather than a medium through which lovers truly and emotionally experience the Other.

Something very magical occurs when people really begin to experience the world of the Other. Buber’s notion of the “I and Thou” helps us clarify how one sees the self in relation to others in the pursuit of life and happiness; it also sees human-interaction with other persons as necessary for a genuine self-understanding. Through the “I and Thou”, we learn to understand feelings experienced by another and lastly it helps us identify what you demand of others when you accept them as a person.

The same may be said of theology — the “study of God.” History has tried to scientifically study God as if He were an inanimate object or thing, as a result, both God and His creation are left in a mutual state of estrangement, for how can one love a theological idea and construct? Buber once mused: can one explain the concept of a mother-in-law or a sweetheart? Just as people cannot be conceptualized and be reduced to the level of objects, the same holds true with God. God cannot be reduced to any sort of theological construct. Theological knowledge of God pales when compared to the actual experience of God, as Job himself stated:

I had heard of you by the
hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;

Job 42:5

I hope this answers some of your questions.


Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel