It; Thou - When we treat the self as an 'It'...

Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.
Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.
Martin Buber: I Thou

A poetic, intuitive evocative inquiry on how some of us are inclined to denigrate or use ourselves, neglecting our personhood in apparent 'service' of more worthy others...


Martin Buber’s formulation of the I: It and the I: Thou way of relating is an insightful way to capture the distinction between relating to others as objects or as genuine 'other selves' whose subjectivity is as unique, dynamic and worthy of regard as our own.

But what happens when we do the opposite? - when we use ourselves as objects in service of an apparently worthier and more real Other?

This is not in fact, in Buber's terms, truly relating to the other as a 'Thou', because in an odd way we are using them - albeit via inflation - to objectify and reduce ourselves. Yet this It: Thou is the shaping some of us inhabit all too often; the denial of the self as a whole, valuable, separate self is how many of us habitually relate.

I often notice this inconsistency at the heart of my relating. I engage with others as if the subjective and the personal is worthy of care. I even preach about it, entreat them to honour and make room for the crushed voices inside. Yet even as I do this, I do this with the background knowing that my psyche must be overridden, that my subjectivity is banal and only useful in so far as it serves.

And here we come to some weird distortion of identity in which we believe we are only what we have given. Those of us caught in this delusion may claim the radiant, pleased, healed or altered other as our possessed ‘masterpiece’: our triumph, our effect. To appear to have affected their joy or growth seems inherently more significant than that we have wounded and trashed our own in the process. The self of the self is sacrificed. We have made ourselves an ‘it’ - a functional it, an influential it, a valued it - but nonetheless, very much an it. A less-than and a thing.

This is unsatisfactory and unsustainable. Philosophically. Emotionally. Relationally. Something in us knows this. Here and there, we notice, between the lines, we too are real, we are people, perhaps our longings and hurts matter also. Yet in our desperation to be significant, or accepted, or existentially allowed to exist, we have placed all this on pause.

This is mad, and it is disconcerting. We notice -- at the periphery of our vision - sometimes that those we 'serve' are not inherently more worthy than ourselves. And yet something more primitive knows that they are; that the other is the only one who matters. Our It: Thou delusion persists, the behaviour, the compulsion, to honour the other above the self. This is not love, though it is probably a form of distorted love. Love is in there somewhere. As Derek Mahon writes in The Forger 'for even at one remove/the thing I meant was love...'

But when this pattern dominates, so little room is made – alone, with others, for what might emerge directly from us, of us, for our sole sake. There are odd unconscious, undermining forces in play:  I must not give birth to anything original, I must only be the midwife, up all night, or the suspended someone who will never have a life of their own worth much at all.

This instinct requires interrogation. Can we take responsibility for our mutual presence here, to own our needs of others, to consider ourselves worthy of our subjectivity, and to enter into the brave, dynamic space of being real, vulnerable and alive with others, who are our equals.