Environmental Connectedness Through The I-Thou Lens
A First Blog
Initially, I had no intention of writing a blog. Many of the journals and articles I have read about blogging appear to promote blogging as either solely a means of marketing a product, or a platform for highlighting a sparsely veiled self-interest, neither of which hold any great value for me. I do, however, enjoy writing, albeit in a clumsily and halted manner, recently though the opportunity to write so rarely presents itself these days, which is to say that I haven’t been making the time and space to write. So, the fact that I can write out of interest and support my work as a therapist, presents me with a strong motivation, and welcome opportunity to get writing again.
I had considered this blog to be something simple and functional, a platform for communicating shared interests, and a space where some might find valuable information to alleviate their concerns or lean into growth. While I believe this will still be the case, as I explored topics to share, I found myself (as is often the case) overwhelmed by the wealth of knowledge and information available out there, much of which appeared to be unsubstantiated, opinionated, sensationalist and groundless. I went down a wombat burrow of potential topics and emerged with that old feeling of content-driven anxiety. In being faced with information merely jostling for attention, demanding my energy, and forcing its presence into my psychological space, it occurred to me, that, as much as is possible, I hope not to produce any more content of this nature.
I acknowledge that I am new to this, but I intend for these blogs to be both a process, and a point of meeting. I will share lessons that I have learned and found to be valuable, considerations and actions I genuinely believe to be helpful, and otherwise, points and curiosities that I think are downright neat.
But What to Write About?
I found myself reflecting on which topic to discuss first. It needed to be a topic that covered the purpose of both my services, instrumental in my current practice, and given this new step for me, a topic that has helped me reach this point in my own development. Most importantly, however, it needed to be a topic I believed would be of value to you. Do tell me if I’ve missed the mark (but be gentle).
The topic I chose is about Martin Buber’s work on the I-Thou relationship. I came across his work through an old friend and co-worker, whom I worked with in my first role as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation support worker in 2013. These conversations of Buber’s work changed my perspective, informing how I encountered others and the world at large, and continues to inform my own ongoing self-reflexive practice.
Martin Buber’s I-Thou Encounter
In 1923, Martin Buber, a philosopher and writer, published his seminal work ‘I and Thou’. This essay explores the ways that humans relate to one another and to their immediate world.
Buber suggests that humans routinely view people and the world according to their functions rather than as unique individuals. He calls this an “I-It” relationship. I-It relationships tend to be one dimensional, objectifying, emotionally limiting, and can lead individuals to act in certain ways or change their presence to “fit in”. This is the antithesis of authentic engagement with the world. An I-it relationship by its nature limits the potential for true and deep engagement with others, and the expression of our true self. Others are experienced as a means to an end, a defined other, the relationship tends to be transactional, and the self is only partially engaged in the relationship.
In contrast, the ‘I-Thou’ relationship is a mutually dynamic relationship, it is the seat of authentic engagement. This relationship encounters others and the world in the moment, limiting one’s presumptions of ‘the other’ as this or that. The I-Thou relationship is not driven by assumptions, or a relational stance of how to use an other to achieve a goal, it is open to the relational dynamic, spontaneity, and encountering our own and the other’s humanity and presence. Buber offers a relational dynamic which he terms “The Between”, where the space and presence of both members encounter to become greater than the contributions of both parties. Where both parties are actively sparked in interest and empathetic engagement, when one meets another as Thou, they acknowledge the uniqueness and separateness of the other, without obscuring the relatedness and common humanness that is shared. Buber rightly maintained that human growth and development occurs in the context of relationships, that we function most effectively and authentically when our sense of being is genuinely acknowledged, and we aren't imposing ‘conditions of worth’ upon others.
The I-Thou Experience
I believe that Buber’s I-Thou relationship extends beyond human-human relationships, extending to our relationship with the world at large, the way we approach the natural world, the human-animal bond, our relationship with work and study, even how we relate to self. Where an I-Thou stance may acknowledge the essential beingness, value, and aesthetics within the world, an I-it relationship diminishes the quality of authentic engagement within all these relationships.
I have found Buber’s idea’s to be foundational, and I share this today because I believe the work to have a valuable and ongoing application in our lives, one that requires being learned repeatedly throughout life. If we constantly objectify our world, and the relationships in it, we cannot comfortably and authentically be present with her. Consider walking a dog in a forest, for example. An I-it perspective would likely see the path based on its function. They might assess the trees by the quality and grain of their wood, fungus for their edibility or message of danger, the birds for the type of call, and the fauna for their perceived beauty or absence therein. A root over the path may be a cause of annoyance because it does not fit the perspective of function, how a path ‘ought to be’. The path gets one somewhere and the I-it perspective may be acutely aware of how long this walk should take, whether I will reach 10,000 steps, and where the path should end. The forest walk, perhaps, is borne of the sole intention of walking the dog, to get it out of the house so the dog will not bark later.
An I-thou relationship or stance with the world, on the other hand, differs in that there are no assumptions of the ‘other’. The world is revealed, one is absorbed in the now, and a vastly different relationship established. One might take the same path, experiencing a sense of wonder within the gentle quiet, the call of a bird is experienced as a sudden delight, a curiosity, a consideration of its inherent belonging to this space. The path is a gift, worked by many feet over time, changing each time it’s walked. The flora and fauna may be viewed as an interconnected part of a whole, bound to the ancient soil and the roots of trees where the hollow trunk is a home.
So too, the dog may be viewed as far more than just ‘a dog’. They become a travelling companion, a close friend with unique qualities and characteristics, they are an ‘other’ intimately sharing the same space and time. In this sun dappled moment, you might be aware of the uniqueness of this relationship, the shared experiences, the love in their eyes, and the joy in their play. Importantly, this will be a relationship one mourns when it is severed.
Personal Applications of the I-Thou Encounter
Martin Buber’s work had a significant impact on my relationship with the world. His language and ability to define and pin down such deeply felt concepts presented a unique way of being that I don’t doubt, was already intuited the world over, even though it was not cognizant and clear. As a therapist, the I-Thou relationship re-frames the counsellor/client relationship, promoting a consideration of the ‘other’ not as a set of expectations and assumptions garnered from a thorough intake assessment, or diagnosis, but as a unique, dynamic, creative, and spontaneous, imbued with the capacity to experience authentic encounters. When this stance is taken, the seat of change shifts from what one 'does' in therapy, to how one is ‘being’. Buber’s core reflection on the value of the I-Thou in human development and growth, resonates with the words of the existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, “It’s the relationship that heals, it’s the relationship that heals, it’s the relationship that heals". Effective therapy, whilst integrating evidence-based practice, becomes the movement towards and within the I-Thou relationship, where unexpected change can manifest within “the Between”.
I also found that having an awareness of Buber’s theory, naturally opens up points of reflection and inquiry relating to power and privilege, points that cannot be understated if we as humans hope to manifest a more open and mutually beneficial society.
Regarding my work with companion animal grief and bereavement, Martin Buber’s theory helps to explain the complexities of the human-animal bond, shedding light on why some people may grieve the loss of an animal companion, where others do not.
I personally struggle at times to engage in a more authentic I-Thou relationship with relation to the natural world. Certainly, I can appreciate her at any given moment, over a morning coffee outside, bushwalking, swimming in a creek, or gazing out over a forest. But I too often fall into the I-It relationship in my everyday life, with regards to lifestyle, or the products I purchase, a position that is almost impossible to avoid given the global state of hyper-consumerism. Martin Buber would acknowledge that one cannot always be in the I-Thou, we need the I-It to achieve the various functions throughout our day. However, he acknowledged, even in his time, a sharp move away from the I-Thou towards a primary I-It state. One cannot force the I-thou encounter, it is an option, a gift that we can find ourselves presented with. We can, however, condition ourselves to be more sensitive to the potential for the I-Thou encounters. I see this sensitivity towards the I-Thou in simple action. It’s making eye contact and acknowledging the barista in the morning, being thankful for their unique contribution to the brew, being compassionate and understanding when your coffee takes an extra minute to prepare because there is a line outside the door.
I like to imagine when the I-It state was first formed and moulded within those infant moments of human evolution. As our consciousness first produced the experience of 'other' as separate from themselves, the emergence of tools and prey as a means to an end, those tiny incremental shifts in perspective as the human ego formed a firm sense of self, difference, and power over the world around them. We see increasing evidence of the I-It in our world today, it’s here that I am encouraged and reminded that Martin Buber believes that there is potential for a return to a primary I-Thou state, that it is inherent in our being if we become sensitive to its presence and absence. Opportunities can arise and be recognised, perhaps through being mindful of our state, considering times we are or were meaningfully and authentically present with another, nature, or gazing into the eyes of a beloved companion animal.
If I have any call to action to leave with you, it would be the same that I ask of myself, to pursue and develop your own ways to cultivate a sensitivity to the I-Thou, to listen in greater depth to the blessed encounter when the question ‘what can I get from you right now’? could not be further from the mind, those rare, engaging moments, saturated with meaning, and emptied of assumptions.
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