Ethical Edge

By Russell Williams

Ethical Edge

1974 ~ Martin Buber

They Came My Way
The Fundamental Relationship: I-Thou

“When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words,saying, ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God.’ Act instead as though there were no God,as though there were only one person in the world … only yourself.”
Martin Buber

It was 1974. In May India became the sixth nuclear power when it successfully tested an atomic device.  On July 30th the House Judiciary Committee adopted articles of impeachment charging President Nixon with obstruction of justice.  Nine days later, President Nixon announced his resignation and on August 9, Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th US President.  Just one month later, Ford granted Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon.”

The Sting won the Best Picture Oscar while Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from Russia to join the American Ballet Theatre.  Roberta Flack won the Grammy for record & song of the year, Killing Me Softly With His Song and three Americans were recognized with Nobel Prizes in Science.

Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors won the women’s and men’s Wimbledon titles while Oklahoma and USC won a split decision with both schools recognized as the NCAA Champions.  Big Band’s Duke Ellington, Iconic World Hero Charles Lindbergh and Baseball’s Dizzy Dean died.

I was just about to arrive on the threshold of a ministerial career. At some point during the year, I learned about an essay that became a book written by Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, theologian and scholar. In 1930 Buber was an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt am Main, but resigned in protest when Adolph Hitler came to power in 1933.  Five years later Buber left Germany for Jerusalem where he became a professor at the Hebrew University.  He remained in Jerusalem until his passing in June 1965.

Throughout 2012 I have used this weekly column to chronicle the lives of individuals who have come my way to exercise influence, insight, wisdom, and discovery for my life journey. This is the first column I am dedicating to an individual who I never met in person, but whose thoughts have had significant impact on a life lesson I continue to explore: I-Thou.

In 1925 when Buber was forty-five years old, he wrote his famous essay, Ich und Du, which was translated in 1937 into English as a small book  I and Thou. The book focuses on a question: How do we understand our place in the world. As an existentialist, he viewed meaning as the story of relationship. His big idea was that, ultimately, all relationships can reveal our relationship with God.

Buber made the compelling argument that there are only two ways to understand relationships. They are either I-It or I-Thou.  In the familiar world of I-It, we view others as objects, different and distinct from us. A someone or something, It, appears before us. What we see is an object to fulfill for our wants and needs.  The I-It relationship always places the nexus of thought about what we can get…receive…acquire…take from that which is before us. I-It relationships are transactional.  In the world of I-It, we experience many, many Its as we negotiate our way through a maze of fulfillment by getting.

The I-It world does not operate with the awareness of mutual worth, dignity, respect because at the center of the I-It world is awareness that blocks such understanding:  You (It) are different than me.

The I-Thou world is wholly different.  In the I-Thou world, there is no It to act upon.  Instead, who or what we see in front of us is a relationship that mirrors, companions, reflects us. Who we see is Thou…that which is of God, the good. In Buber’s understanding I-Thou is the fundamental relationship to be discovered in life.

Buber’s I-Thou explores the boundaries of consciousness.  He used his life to become an Awareness Pioneer who saw life through a different window, beyond the transactional into the relational.

In 1971, just a few years before I read Buber’s words, I glimpsed the I-Thou world.  It was a world where I became alive to all things good. Reading Buber’s book confirmed that experience.  The you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours transactional awareness that holds us in a jailhouse of limitations was transformed into freedom’s sacred Thou…which is always before us.

I now understand that the I-Thou world of awareness offers belonging.  Yet, after forty years of periodic touchstone moments with the I-Thou rhythm, I have a major observation. Although such moments of knowing fill us with an innocence that is freeing and refreshing, you and I can be cynical and judgmental about the I-Thou knowing.

So, if you, my reader, have not put these musings aside, let me end with some tasty morsels from the I-Thou world:

I-Thou offers you personal knowledge of your greatest happiness. For that reason, you will want to continue your exploration to allow the I-Thou world to come your way.

The I-Thou knowing is richer than your child or grandchild’s kiss on your cheek; or your spouse’s tender embrace; or your bank account with an unexpected gift of a million dollars; or your most special vacation spot in the whole world that you will never have to leave.

Yes, every time life’s fundamental relationship, I-Thou, comes your way  to whisper its message of dignity, worth, value, its greeting is so authentic and  joyful for YOU, that you cannot forget its power  to move your life in magical, meaningful  ways…moment by moment and day by day.



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