According to Buber, human nature allows for two basic approaches to the world: I~Thou and I~It. In these terms, our relational nature is highlighted as subject and object merge to form a greater whole.
“There is no I taken in itself,” Buber writes, “but only the I of the primary word I~Thou and the I of the primary word I~It.” The I in each case is substantively different, as is the relationship that results.
When we approach life from an I~It mentality, we step into a world consisting of separate parts, each isolated from the others and from us. Setting aside a deeper connection, we travel over the surface of life, reducing the dazzling totality to a mechanism for fulfilling our own needs and desires.
However, when we begin from I~Thou, we stand on entirely different ground. “The relation to (a) Thou is direct,” Buber writes. “No system of ideas, no foreknowledge, and no fancy intervene between I and Thou.”
As an example, he suggests we look at a tree. I might classify it as a species, notice its structure, recognize the biological laws that govern its growth. All these are concepts that relegate the tree to an object separate from me.
I can, though, enter into relationship with the tree. Without losing or ignoring any of the attributes listed above, I can perceive this tree directly and wholly. In so doing, I am no longer looking at something outside myself. The tree has become Thou, and my I has been changed in the process.
The same, of course, occurs with our fellow humans. We can remain in the world of I~It, weaving a storyline from our previous contacts with them, or others like them, in which they have pleased or displeased us, met or not met our needs. Or we can approach our companions as Thou, and watch as something profound changes. When we enact I~Thou, time stops. We step out of our customary way of being and perceive what is, without bias or judgment. True relationship is achieved.
And something else occurs as well. “Every particular Thou,” Buber continues, “is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou…the Thou that by its nature cannot become It.” According to Buber, all efforts to define or explain the essential nature of God, as well as techniques to achieve particular spiritual states, arise from the realm of I~It. For a direct experience of God, it’s I~Thou we want.
“The world, lit by eternity, becomes fully present to him who approaches the Face,” Buber writes, “and to the Being of beings he can in a single response say Thou.”
When we live in I~Thou, we move toward what comes our way, openly and without preconception. We experience it wholly, within an authentic relationship.
So, I wake this morning with the intention to meet the day without bias. Despite my to~do lists and wishes, I will greet what comes my way as it is, with openness and welcome. And when I become distressed because life is not conforming to my expectations or I find myself grasping after an experience that pleases me, I will recognize that I have fallen once more into I~It thinking.
And with Thou on my lips, I will return to relationship with a world shot through with the light of eternity.
And to every one of you reading these words, I bow and utter a heart~felt "Thou".