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Buber’s I-Thou Relationship Applied to the Self:
the possibility of true love and true community
within someone’s lifetime

A Personal Complaint

Mature and self-confident, hormonally stable long since––but, alas, I am none of these.

A few years ago I grumbled out a late night piece on relationship (or absence thereof) between a man and a woman.1.  With the haughty authority of the author I ended it abruptly by summarily ejecting both characters out of the story, condemning them each as pigs and snakes, too hopelessly and horribly like all my own friends and relatives.

Shortly thereafter I found myself against my will writing a story of a man and a woman who doubt there can be true love, at least for themselves each2  I was in utter dumb agony the several days I dutifully wrote the story, doubted throughout that it could make any sense or go anywhere.  After several weeks delay, fearfully perusing it in the protective company of a woman friend, I agreed it was indeed a story, but it had not at all resolved the ever-sticky love problem.

Not many months later, experiencing severe jealousy for the first time in my life (in relation to yet another woman), I clumsily began a novel about first betrayal and first jealousy3 I learned from this a)  that in fact that one was not at all my first experience of jealousy, b)  that she and I had never had a real relationship, c)  that my jealousy then was in relation to my brother rather than to my lover, d)  that all these things had nothing to do with love, e)  that these all came from angry self-centered attitudes within me rather than from any relationship past or present and f)  that jealousy is truly a corrosive state of soul sincerely to be avoided.

I was proud of my meager progress in understanding, if not so proud of my literary accomplishment.  I even used my research to advise and benefit an old friend who was in yet another angry control struggle with yet another possessive jealous young man.  With all proper delay I used our healthy nurturing relationship to make love with her, exert many dimensions of possessiveness and control on her, force her to take distance from me in order to protect the freedom and integrity I myself had tutored into her, and thereby I became infantilely jealous and injured when she offered to continue our friendship but not our sexual relationship.

Humbly I sit today in a pool of my own sweat, tears and hormones willing to reach for further understanding for you and me.  For me alone I’d rather drown it all in drink or in this shallow pool I have become; but for you I must be willing to work hard toward clarity which might save you suffering––that which, rather than romantic or cynical, can be true and useful.   This may not work, but here goes.

Perversions are not Love

As I have shown me in my stories, love cannot be conventional, cannot be determined by roles and responsibilities.  It cannot occur for the sake of appearances or the desire to seem “normal.”  Since love cannot be conventional, it cannot be brought about nor sustained by institutions of convention like marriage.

Love can be neither selfish nor selfless.  Whatever love is, it cannot come from seeking gratification for the self.  But, also, love cannot germinate or grow in seeming selflessness.  Insidious patterns of sickness we have come to call “co-dependence” are always hard to see from within, but when we see them on the soap operas we instantly recognize them as gross efforts to control and possess the other by indirect coercion.  (My career as a clinician, productive of good though it has been, is another example of such “pathologic altruism,” rooted in self-centered erotic fantasy.)

Love cannot be contractual.  We can discuss indefinitely the polarity, the push and pull between two persons, but the bottom line is that avaricious seeking for satisfaction of selfish appetites, self-sacrificing devotion to the other, or the ever inadequate “compromise” of trading off concessions and demands will none of them ever have anything to do with love, nor will any of them avoid the deadly acid of jealousy or its equivalents.

Love and hate are not merely two sides of the same coin.  Whatever love is, it has nothing whatever to do with hate.  Buber says it best (in Ich und Du4):  there is no hate or destruction in the realm of the I-Thou, where real love must be.  Despite his long experience of sharing with his wife Paula Winkler (married over sixty years), Buber’s writing only points toward what love is and what love is not, but he does not hand us the treasure or the key.

Jealousy is Learned and Earned

Jealousy may have something to do with love, but it is not at all what love is.  Somehow jealousy mutates from love, or from the wish for love.  Perhaps jealousy is the miscarriage or abortion of love.  It seems easier to demarcate jealousy than to define love.

“The most jealous persons are those who are not able to love but need the feeling of being loved.”
Otto Fenichel5

“The basis of jealousy in such cases is an unconscious tendency toward infidelity which is projected onto the partner.”
Otto Fenichel6

“...clinging to the conscious thoughts of jealousy serves the repression of something else...The obsessive character of jealousy is due, first of all, to the fact that the actual situation that aroused the jealousy reminds the person of a previous similar one that had been repressed...(T)he Oedipus complex...certainly is at the basis of all jealousy...”
Otto Fenichel7

“...(W)hat causes humiliation and the fall of self-esteem in the jealous person is not the wound of his loss, but his jealousy itself...”
Leslie H. Farber8

“Jealousy” is an ambiguous term in the English language.  I am “jealous of” who or what I wish to have, but also I am “jealous of” my rival for possession of my treasure (whether that rival is “real” or “imaginary”).  Perhaps what I am jealous of is their relationship which does not include me.  I suspect there is a strong identification with and (good heavens!) homosexual attachment to the rival, anchored in the wish to embrace the mirror self.

Etymologically, “jealous” is the same as “zealous.”  Zeal is something I used to have.  For me it came from the need to be right, which I recognize as the primary value in my family relationships from the beginning of my existence.  (These connections are just for me––they may not apply to you at all––but for me they weave a web I begin through the shadows to see; someday, I hope, to see through.)

I have done a great deal to sustain my righteousness, including a great deal of stubborn lying.  My altruism is one of the masks I use to cover whatever is behind it all; certainly if I am doing things for the sakes of others I cannot be accused of wrong so easily as if I act more openly selfish.  If I refuse to seem selfish I can neglect, deprive and abuse myself with more facility, which will tend further to justify my anger and self-pity.

If I am altruistic I can justify the perpetuation of my stubbornness.  I can continue to be the provocative gadfly who contradicts any conventional notion, the belligerent pacifist who fought for peace, the champion of the underdog, the disruptive social critic whose sensitivity to injustice is intended to be a valued gift to all humankind (never adequately appreciated).

When all my self-righteous provocativeness is rejected by others or accepted only by those who find their own self-serving uses for it, my angry inner fires are not quenched but further fueled (and any capacities I have for repeated defiant and compulsive behaviors, ulcers, arthritis and coronary spasm).  But I can deny my anger even as it erodes me, because I am the one who buys my lies the most intensely.

I deny my selfishness, so I deny my jealousy.  I wish to believe I would never be selfish, possessive or controlling (for those are characteristics I could not live with in any of my wives).  I wish to deny that I could seem angry or intimidating to anyone, for my demands are not for myself––they are for the sakes of truth and justice.  I am hurt when others respond to me with fear or anger.  I have always been misunderstood.

Secrets Hidden Under the Skirts of Love

I do not like Doctor Freud’s assumptions that I have selfish drives, nor his daughter’s elaborations about my ego and its mechanisms of defense which serve those drives; nor do I approve that these were formulated before I could freely choose to agree or disagree with the apotheosized Freuds.  However, I very much more resent the contentious Jung’s contentions that much of what I am and experience and do is predetermined by a collective unconscious, that much of what has meaning and beauty is invested in my constitution and in my past, not so much in my mind and eye and heart this moment.  I much prefer Buber’s offer that I live in the timeless now, in immediate relation to each thou who confronts me.

I would like to live in authentic relation to whatever is, here and now, but I feel myself the prisoner of my own past.  I fear perceiving this imprisonment as shared with all other such prisoners––I wish to be unique in my suffering, unalterably alone and inconsolable.  (My secret desire is that the more miserable I am the more ardently someone will be coerced to come and comfort me.)  We are each of us in such solitary confinement (and cannot feel our sharing or share our feeling).

I waver some and waffle, but I tend to revert in my formal thinking to Freudian individualism (or Leibnitzian monadism, solipsism, solitary confinement in the repeated bonds of self).  I know there should be something called community, but I fear I have been alienated from it, mostly.  I suspect we humans have failed to find community these past ten thousand years, but have been tantalized by ephemeral glimpses of it.  Alone I can complain to my heart’s contempt, but I cannot live in human community all by myself.

So, if I might come close to a real other person, usually I drive that one away (to justify my fears of being rejected).  Coming close to another I have experienced jealousy, irrational grasping, anger which is painful.  I would like to laugh at me about this.  I will try to love the fool in me and laugh.  I have looked for relief and resolution for me.  Maybe I can find some equanimity now, somewhat clumsily sharing with you my thoughts about my own faulty character and foolishness, listening for you to say, “Yes, me too; I am that way some.”  I am listening, indeed, to you.

Love, hate, jealousy, competition make complex examples for consideration in Buberian terms (or Freudian, or any other, come to think of it).  Competition has something to do with hate, but secretly engenders a kind of love, at least a kind of identification.  I hate my rival, perhaps, but secretly I love him because he is like me, my mirror twin, standing toe to toe, nose to nose against me, in my face.  He may kill me, but I do not care so long as he respects me.

I hate the object of my love sometimes, perhaps, but that is only as my simple gross infantile primitive dependencies are not met, as I am deprived of what I cannot even specify.  As my expectations are met (never fully or for long), I love her.  As they may not be met I am anxious and jealous.

Two Loves within Me

The “love” which engenders jealousy cannot be true love.  Let love be something which fills me, something which calms me, something I do not doubt.  Let love clarify always, not confuse.

What have I learned these last few years, as I have grown?  I feel split between the self on the one hand who accepts, supports and nurtures; but the screaming self who demands and grasps stomps and bites my other hand.

The first of these selves gives very high priority to freedom for himself and for the other person.  He is patient.  He laughs frequently, appreciates as valuable the imperfections and foibles of himself and others.  When he loves, he may suffer some disappointments but he is not capsized by them.  He values the welfare and the arbitrary choices of the other.

The screaming infant in me makes no sense, seems inconsolable.  He causes me deep ripping and persistent pain.  I cannot quiet him easily.  I cannot consider killing him, for that would be suicide.

And I realize I love him.  I, the reliable nurturing adult, love this impossible demanding little tyrant.  To the extent I can be my calm whole self I love this fragment of me as if he were another.  This must be the task––mature self-love, at least acceptance of what has seemed unacceptable.

Who said a splitting of the self must be pathologic?  Nonsense.  I have found now that acceptance of me is arduously come by, but is prerequisite to the acceptance of any other without possessiveness, interminable suffering, jealousy and hate.  I have not accomplished these, but I have approached close enough to see them.

Buber makes clear enough the parameters of the relationships between self and other, from the I of the I-Thou and from the very different but necessary I of the I-It.  He doesn’t make so clear the reflexive relationship of the I(of the I-Thou)-Me or the I(of the I-It)-Me.  (Buber denies there can be real relationship to self in the way there can be relationship to an other, as Professor Friedman advises me9; of which much more almost immediately.)  Those who say they find God within themselves likely mean they have been confronted by the Eternal Thou within the I(of the I-Thou)-Me relationship.  (There is no simpler way for me to put this, than in such algebraic expressions.  Do not be repelled:  take a moment to piece it all together.  Re-read I and Thou, now.)

Self-centeredness as the Structural Flaw

Since early childhood I have been repelled by selfishness, denied it in myself.  It horrifies  and disgusts me to find it in me today; but since I am more realistic than I was in my twenties, thirties and forties, it no longer surprises me to trip over my self-centeredness.  I wreaked havoc through the surreptitious exercise of my goodness, always self-righteous, stubborn, opinionated, provocative.  If it would save the world from suffering such insufferable boors, I would gladly kill myself or submit to execution.  Perhaps I should ask for hemlock, emulate my haughty-humble mentor Socrates.

(I am a terrible name-dropper.  My egotism brings me to call Socrates and Hippocrates and Buber my teachers, Aristotle my intimate, and Edgar Allen Poe my little brother.  Such grandiosity is certainly selfishness out of bounds.)

I find myself secretly severely haughty and simultaneously histrionically humble; I am a know-it-all bully, a voluntary scapegoat, a compulsive check-grabber in restaurants and an over-tipper.  My son once said, “Dad, when they start the Third World War, you’ll take responsibility.”  Yet I am crushed at any criticism, panic when any woman finds me imperfect or unpalatable, seek unscrupulously to manipulate her into adoring me, wish her to declare me uncontested the world’s greatest lover, so I can blush flustered and deny it all lamely.

I am as self-centered as anyone can be, and so are you.  Each of us is.  The problem is not to obliterate the self, but to find a new way to approach it.  The old ways haven’t worked well, almost haven’t worked at all sometimes.  We have not accomplished human community nor found true love. 

How did considerations of true love bring me to self?  I think that is more plausible than it may at first appear.  I could not find love, but I abhorred self-love.  What I could not find was self-acceptance.  Somehow I do not possess my self, even my own body, nor, certainly, any secure future.  I fear fearing being naked, deprived, worthless, rejected.  (Like I said, this is a common agony I am suffering.) 

This morning I read my sister’s essay “The Body as Property, a Feminist Re-vision”10.  I do appreciate her work, but I’ll not try to recapitulate it here, nor to prove to her how well I understand it or remember its intricacies.  I refer to having read it in order to be quite specific, to explain to you and me some of the harmonies it brought up in me to read it, the synchronicities which, to the degree  I am open to them, I encounter every moment of my life.

Gender Warfare Imposed on Pacifists

I am at odds with many people often.  They do not like my idiom.  I cannot pretend to understand everything about how I and they have made it so, but I only change alienation’s fringes, not my secret heart.  This morning I was aware of a few discrepancies between me and other persons:  a high-level bureaucrat whose irritated call I had to return because against her will I had been communicating about a major change in the government agency I contract with; a dear woman friend who is enmired in her own stuckness, whom I believe I would like to liberate but know I cannot; the several women I have been close to in the past many months, each of whom has broken with me; my brother’s daughter and her friend who are visiting our home; my brother’s wife, whose depression over ancient and current family crises has paralysed her willingness to work; my college-bound daughter who is more critical of her father now than ever.

All I have mentioned here are women.  (My sister also is a woman, come to think of it.)  There are men I have had differences with, even this week, but I consider them crotchety old women for not getting along with me.

Can this be a sexist problem I have?  No, but like one of the underlying questions of my sister’s essay, my problems with the world in general are rooted in a culture which uses gender roles to hem us all in.  I don’t know exactly how to proceed orderly in this exposition, but I know it will come to criticize our commonly held cultural assumptions about gender roles, and will seek to gather together many shreds of communal blindness elaborated from our faulty assumptions about gender.

A few things I have no intention to be distracted into:  my personal idiosyncrasies; sibling rivalry; problems of lust in my life as opposed to problems of gender in our human culture.  (I will always be distracted by the needs of cats; they are the most civilized persons in my world.  I may stop to feed or scratch them while we converse here.)

I wonder why persons are not allowed to think, talk and act in infinitely various ways.  I wonder why they are not allowed to relate to each other in freedom.  I wonder why arbitrary social roles are enforced, which keep us from much productivity and innovation.

Of course I do not know who I am essentially, or who I could be without society, culture, convention.  I do know I have long since been convinced that human culture for the past ten thousand years has failed––all of it.  I do not know of a group of humans who can raise a child without programmatic trauma, or relate to each other without coercion, or create institutions which are not corrupt.

Much of my sister’s discussion of the body as property responds to the work of John Locke11.  Of course, what he said was in response to his predecessors and to his cultural-historic context.  His work did, in fact, come to be crystallized in American political assumptions.  The goals he sought promoted freedom and productivity for each citizen.  The citizen he assumed for human society happened to be the adult male, European.

Please understand, I love and respect ghosts, and most of the time I find reason to forgive them.  I forgive John Locke for any imperfections in his work, knowing he worked sincerely, knowing none of us could tolerate perfection anyhow.  The problem is, he left me little room to seek any life but that of a materialistic individualistic gun-toting white male.  I will always be ill-suited to such a role.

The body as property?  Am I the only one who has ignored his own body?  Haven’t I heavily depended on it as I have survived decades of self-neglect?  Where have I lived, if not in my body?  Where is my self, if not within my body?

Locke meant to simplify relationships by demarcating property lines between persons, but instead of community among persons which allows I-Thou relationship his approach left a society of entitled individuals related by contract (always in the I-It mode).

Locke had the same problem with society vs. community that I have had with self-serving love vs. true love.  This is not only a problem of ignoring the other person, but also a problem of not considering the self broadly enough.  We make numerous sorts of errors when we make assumptions about our selves.  Locke was influenced by the mechanistic and male-centered approaches of many of his most brilliant predecessors and contemporaries.  I have been perverted in a parallel fashion, haunted by the tyrannical infant I must earlier have been.

The Body as Property:
Locke and the Pope vs. my Big Sister and her Little Brother

In her treatment of the body as property Doctor Petchesky considers implications of the person somehow being property of herself or himself.  She makes it clear a person is only a person in relation to a community.  (It is a tribute to her consistency and integrity that she was focusing on the same target thirty years earlier12.)

She refers to Diggers and Levellers in Revolutionary England, their attempts to establish shared rights of access to communal property, and to establish sovereignty over their own persons analogous to royal sovereignty over the state as a whole.  She sketches the development of political and conceptual changes which rapidly proceeded from Hobbes to Locke to Blackstone, catalysed by Cromwell’s reactionary Puritanism.  The change went from person to object, that is legal status shifted from being someone to owning something.

Because American politics and economics emerged especially from Locke’s conceptions it is difficult for us as Americans to understand freedom defined in terms other than those of private property.  In other words, it is difficult for us to understand how a person can be real or important except as owner or voter.  We are concretely materialistic, understand relationships only in terms which are adversarially I-It.  In the marketplace, in the court or on the battlefield we identify winners and losers.  We have little concept of persons living enmeshed in the intricate flow of common welfare.

Seeing power and wealth as reality blinds us to human values and human relationships.  If feminists make the mistake of trying to wrest power from a male establishment they will not only lose the battle, but will also lose their integrity as the more competent coalition to engender and nurture, to reestablish a world of the living and growing.  I concede to women no monopoly over humanness, but I certainly cannot trust the male-dominated arenas of trade, legislature, theorizing and warfare to do other than to destroy the world of the living, to establish a world of the humanly dead.

My sister, responsible and respectable political scientist and activist, refers to Foucault and Marx more readily than to Buber.  I am not surprised, but find it more than mere coincidence that she engages the understanding of relationship rather than of object when discussing “property.”  Our mother’s brother (scholar and activist himself) studied Buber assiduously, brought much of Buber’s work into English13.  Buber’s idiom made sense to the infantile experience in my own life from long before I had heard of him from my uncle.  I see reflected in my brother David’s values and priorities that he (an activist communalist environmentalist community psychiatrist) carries this with him also.  As dissident clinician and poet, I myself must emphasize personal relation above material object.  It seems only natural that any real human person––from my own family or not––will live humanness in terms Buber has outlined.

The Nature of Relationship:  Love and Community

I have had trouble understanding relationships because I have never been especially successful in them.  I have avoided simplistic and mechanistic explanations of relationships.  I advise Locke to be cautious likewise.  His predecessor Thomas Hobbes14 likened society to a single human organism, a faulty but attractive model.  (He did not say, as almost universally misquoted, that “the life of man” is by necessity “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” but that in the absence of society it would be.)  Like Buber, Hobbes lived an authentic life to a good old age.  He played tennis at eighty, I have heard.  Those two fellows each survived several regimes without execution.  (Now, there is some sort of success to be emulated.)

Hobbes saw the state as real and organic, saw the several individuals and groups of individuals related by roles and contracts, as did Locke.  Bureaucrats look for reality in contracts, are blind to reality beyond the written page.  Hobbes was a bureaucrat, hoped codification of contracts would be comprehensive definition of relationship within the state.  Just as I suspect two individuals cannot be bound in love by roles or contracts, I suspect true community cannot successfully be glued by expectations and definitions, but by being.

I don’t know any better than you what it is to be, but I think Buber did (and Hobbes, perhaps).  When we conceive of and design our being in terms of conventions we lose something (which I shall seek to find); we trust in that same something in convention Locke trusted, and Hobbes, and even Aristotle.  We trust society as if it were reliable, but it is not.

What is it we come to realize we are missing when we seek “love” between us, “community” among us?  Are we fooling ourselves, or are we reaching for something which can be real, but too frail easily to hold on to, too ephemeral?  Or, if these things we seek are so strong as they should be, won’t they last if only we can once find them?

Let me remind myself of some simple things Professor Buber said, hoping to remember the simple truth of his proposition of I-Thou and I-It relationships:

    “Man becomes an I through a You.  What confronts us comes and vanishes,  relational events take place and scatter, and through these changes crystallizes,  more and more each time,  the consciousness of the constant partner, the I-consciousness.  To be sure, for a long time it appears only woven into the relation to a You, discernible as that which reaches for but is not a You; but it comes closer and closer to the bursting point until one day the bonds are broken and the I confronts its detached self for a moment like a You––and then it takes possession of itself and henceforth enters into relations in full consciousness.

“Only now can the other basic word be put together.  For although the You of the relation always paled again, it never became the It of an I––an object of detached perception and experience, which is what it will become henceforth––but as it were an It for itself, something previously unnoticed that was waiting for the new relational event.  Of course, the maturing body as the carrier of its sensations and the executor of its drives stood out from its environment, but only in the next-to-each-other where one finds one’s way, not in the absolute separation of I and object.  Now, however, the detached I is transformed––reduced from substantial fullness to the functional one-dimensionality of a subject that experiences and uses objects––and thus approaches all the “It for itself,” overpowers it and joins with it to form the other basic word.  The man who acquires an I and says I-It assumes a position before things but does not confront them in the current of reciprocity.  He bends down to examine particulars under the objectifying magnifying glass of close scrutiny, or he uses the objectifying telescope of distant vision to arrange them as mere scenery.  In his contemplation he isolates them without any feeling for the exclusive or joins them without any world feeling.  The former could be obtained only through relation, and the latter only by starting from that.  Only now he experiences things as aggregates of qualities.  Qualities, to be sure, had remained in his memory after every encounter, as belonging to the remembered You; but now things seem to him to be constructed of their qualities.  Only by drawing on his memory of the relation––dreamlike, visual, or conceptual, depending on the kind of man he is––he supplements the core that revealed itself powerfully in the You, embracing all qualities:  the substance.  Only now does he place things in a spatio-temporal-causal context; only now does each receive its place, its course, its measurability, its conditionality.  The You also appears in space, but only in an exclusive confrontation in which everything else can only be background from which it emerges, not its boundary and measure.  The You appears in time, but in that of a process which is fulfilled in itself––a process lived through not as a piece that is a part of a constant and organized sequence but in a “duration” whose purely intensive dimension can be determined only by starting from the You.  It appears simultaneously as acting on and as acted upon, but not as if it had been fitted into a causal chain; rather as, in reciprocity with the I, the beginning and end of the event.  This is part of the basic truth of the human world:  only It can be put in order.  Only as things cease to be our You and become our It do they become subject to coordination.  The You knows no system of coordinates.”15

“Even institutions of so-called personal life cannot be reformed by a free feeling (although this also is required).  Marriage can never be renewed except by that which is always the source of all true marriage:  that two human beings reveal the You to one another.  It is of this that the You that is I for neither of them builds a marriage.”16

(I apologize if these citations are too lengthy and too sketchy all at once.  Remember, I told you to commune with Buber yourself.)

Reflexive Applications of the I-Thou Relationship:  Splitting the Self

Professor Buber has indeed suggested the geneses of the I of the I-Thou and of the I of the I-It.  He has indeed given us the keys to true love and to true community.  How easily I forget what I have seen repeatedly for decades as I have read I and Thou.  What I do not easily see or recall having seen is Buber’s treatment of reflexive applications of the I-Thou relationship, i.e., the relation to self.  (Maurice Friedman tells me Buber refused to do so because he considered the I-Thou relationship applicable only to relation to a true other).

Certainly an I-It relation to one’s self is what is engaged when experiencing, having wants and needs, wishing, setting goals, working in a goal-directed fashion, assessing the self, cursing the self, improving the self, relating as that self to others in any sort of action (including speaking or imagining speaking), et cetera.

What is the I-Thou relation of the self to the self?  Now that I am familiar again with Buber’s simple work, there are some elementary axioms I can apply:  that the I-Thou relationship cannot be analyzed or reported, that it does not occur in time and space, that it produces or acquires nothing––but these do not mean it is not real or knowable in some sense.  The reflexive I-Thou relationship is possible (despite Buber’s denial), but will be similar to the I-Thou relations of other sorts, including that with the Eternal Thou.

Buber outlines the genesis of the I of the I-It relation, that it has developed in the context of a You.  Self-image comes about as “it comes closer and closer to the bursting point until one day the bonds are broken and the I confronts its detached self for a moment like a You––and then it takes possession of itself and henceforth enters into relations in full consciousness” (emphasis mine).  That is how it all happened once, but can I recapture something of the initial confrontation with myself?  I certainly can’t recall it as an historic event.

The integration of the self requires a splitting of the self, then a renewed presence.  Perhaps there can be a language of the self through which that dialogue occurs.  Perhaps my brothers who are identical twins have memorable events which cast light on the questions from which my own rigid isolated self is barred.

There is a meeting between me and myself, a dialogue which resonates, forms my character.  I cannot capture it, at best only can be it.  I can talk about it because it matters to me.  I must honor the reality rather than the talk, or it is just more stuff, more property, more inanimate body floating in the river of It.  I cannot remember or recreate my realness in relation to myself, nor to the Eternal Thou who confronts me, but I believe these realnesses.

Not through memory of the events directly, but by later synthesis, I found for myself some keys to my own character: 

I lay on the analyst’s couch vividly imaging before me a cowled death cradling in its arms a crumpled wad of old newspapers.  I exclaimed, deeply moved, “Oh, poor baby!”, knowing my pity was more for the emptiness of the mother than the inertness of the infant.

In fact, my mother was twenty-four when I was born, my sister one and a half years old.  Our household was ruled by my grandmother, then round and sweaty, energetic and tyrannical in the most humanitarian ways.  My grandfather stayed at his office or in his room, a diminutive kind mild man.  I am quite sure my mother had sworn years earlier never again to reside with her parents (not because of her father, whom she loved).

I see that young woman sitting in the window glancing beyond all comprehensible space and time, utterly absent, empty.  She wonders how this came to pass, back in her parents’ house with two small children, her husband poorly known ten thousand miles away (unimaginable he could return except in a box), her love for him avowed (but love an unknown also), the world at war and crazy in its furor, God absent (and she knows there is no God).

I don’t know how, nor was I very conscious of it until today, but rather than to die in that moment of abandonment, rather than to hate her for such neglect (frustrating my immediate infant needs) I somehow sympathized with her pain, secretly fell in love with her and dedicated my erotic energy thereafter to fulfilling her needs in that frozen window moment.  (I was also blessed, when I finally met him on his return from war when I was two and a half, to see my father’s rage as pain, spent the next half century coming to peace with him, filling his holes, healing his wounds as well as I could.  The last few years of his demise were a tender sharing.)17

I address you as real, because you are real to me here and now.  If you were not real, I could not really be who I am as I address you.  (Aristotle really has come to me at three in the morning, Professor Buber in the afternoon.  I am blessed with real presences.  I believe this reality.)

Integrating the Split Self

All these delicate qualifications and disclaimers aside, what can I say about the reflexive applications of the I-Thou relationship?  How can I become really real to me?

How have I met me?  Easier to answer, perhaps (but more risky to ask, for fear of falling into self-abnegation):  What are the many ways in which I have failed to meet myself?  I have avoided acknowledging my own body; I have overvalued my own opinions, to the detriment of my learning, to the detriment of my acceptability to my fellow humans; I have considered that seeking title to property, prestige or power is the only means of acquiring security for my person; I have tried to make deals with others in every conceivable way, a ruse to cover my willingness to cheat them, and I have been cheated; I have denied my own deep desires, have none the less tried to extract their satisfaction from others, and have not even known what I wanted or needed.  I have missed me.

But, how have I met me?  I have succeeded enough to survive, so self-criticism and self-pity about my overly-confessed failures must be set aside.  How have I met me?

I remember something of the child I once was.  I know he was intact somehow, some time.  If my extrapolations from Professor Buber’s suggestions are valid, I can relate now to that child and to other facets or fragments of myself as Thous, as others whom I can be with authentically.  I must have done that quite a bit along the way to have survived; I just haven’t been very conscious of it, haven’t really felt some great part of my own feelings.

I have heavy clues that I have related to myself.  I can relate to you, am in the midst of it now, so I shall use facets of our being here together now to illustrate and illuminate my capacity for reflexive relation to myself.

If I relate to you as an It, I have met that “I” (of the I-It) at least peripherally.  Buber tells me that I of the I-It is the perceived subject which observes, crystallized from a previous moment of relationship to myself, what we might call the moment of awareness of the self  as “subject” (which ironically implies I saw the subject as object, what he calls “an It for itself”).  I can see you as object in the I-It relationship partly because I experienced myself as an It once.

I can relate to you as Thou.  From who I am really I can embrace you as who you are really, unencumbered by time and space.  I see more than object when I see you.  I can identify with you (as I once identified with the observing subject, the I of the I-It).  Buber leaves room for “identification” to be a part of “the between,” being in and being aware of the relationship with the other, so that I am  aware of the other (Thou) and of the relationship and of the I who I am, all at once.  He refers to this as “inclusion of the other” which does not preclude awareness of the relationship nor of the self.

You doubt that I can relate truly to you, sitting at a distance in time and space, surrounded as I am by other things and persons, attending to my keyboard, not to yourself directly.  But, I write stories within which characters sometimes take form who have their own lives, lead me to discover them, surprise me; and I have teachers and friends long distant, some long dead, who are real to me, immediate (as Professor Buber is).  As a physician I can reach out to a patient even before setting eyes on him or her, focus my capacities to care, my expertise at processes of diagnosis and treatment toward that very person.  These are facts of my everyday life; I believe you can reach and relate beyond the “objective” and conventional as easily and often as I.

I can relate to you “subjectively” and “objectively” (in the I-Thou and in the I-It modes), so I have indirect evidence I have related to myself, for I can be aware of the “it for itself” of me which observes you, and I can be aware of the I of the I-Thou relation which embraces (or “includes”) you and the relation  and itself.

I can relate to you, but can I relate to “us”?  Where is community in my own life or in my own thought?  I have, indeed, expended much of my life and energy for the good of “society” or for the good of “the people” (usually as concrete individuals or families of individuals); I have been aware of intricate interdependencies, have analyzed them and addressed them in action often, but I have felt alienated mostly, have not been existentially aware of living in community.  Have you?

I already told you I know I am related to my own family of persons and their peculiar values.  I confessed I have exerted myself in the world for the sake of “society” or the “the people” or “humankind”.  I tried to show you I feel related to you, yourself, because we are both persons (even if you were a cat), sharers in the community of the living (even if some of us live merely as ghosts).

So, here I stumble on another of Buber’s treasures, “world feeling.”  He makes clear (as quoted above) the exclusivity I appreciate in you in the I-Thou relationship which I share with you, that in the reciprocity of the relationship I am confronted by your uniqueness.  Further, he implies, from that relationship with you I can expand into a world feeling, an immediate reciprocity with a community of humankind or all of life.

I used to like the phrase “the self as agent.”18 It suggested to me that to act coherently (for “agent” means “actor”) I would need an integrated self, a self who knew itself and kept its own best interests in mind.  (I certainly would not want a business agent who didn’t know me well and wish the best for me.)  That is good as far as it goes, but it seems too very practical and self-interested.  I am not sure “the self as agent” could reliably love or share community, doubt or criticize its own self (if that serves a good purpose), or worship.

The reintegration of my split (or spilt) self comes, according to the collaboration Buber and I have worked at:

a)  from my having been confronted by a Thou and having embraced the I of that I-Thou relationship at least as the base of my being (I am the I of the I-Thou);

b)  from my having encountered the observing subject I became in the I-It relationship (that consciousness of the observing I which emerged from my identification with the “it for itself”) (I am the I of the I-It);

c)  from having vacillated in my relationship with you between the evaluating, calculating, needy, manipulative, objective I of the I-It on the one hand, and the I of the I-Thou who includes your exclusivity on the other hand, able to see you in coordinates but to honor your person in my heart continually at the same time (I truly love you with both I’s);

d)  from the extension of my honoring an only you to honoring an aggregate which is somehow related (I have world feeling, capacity for community);

e)  I can relate in the I-It mode to myself, honestly evaluating my real needs and capacities, striving to survive and to stay human;

and f)  I can understand and honor the many facets of myself, sympathize and identify with them, carry with me continuously the willingness to let me live and grow (an I-Thou relationship with me).

I am sure Buber would want me to add that through every I-Thou relationship there comes a sense of the underlying oneness of the universe, a sense of the Eternal Thou (whereas the experiences of the I-It spectrum convince my insatiable encyclopedic mind of the infinite variety of reality, not its unity).  Another way I can appreciate myself and sense the integration of my self is to honor my I-Thou relationship with the Eternal Thou, the truly-greater-than-I-am, the truly-greater-than-we-are.  That is the sort of integration world feeling aims to, a reverence for the unifying power of the universe.

Reciprocally, my awareness of my relation to the Eternal Thou informs otherwise fragmented concrete relations with a sense of realness and unity.  Because I have come to believe in the One I can tolerate living with the many.

The Truncation of Community

My sister and the feminist scholars she refers to seek redefinition of person and property to make room for freedom women are not now allowed.  She traces a thread in English political reality from revolutionary libertarian thought and action to the crystallization in law which rather establishes the power of the male landowner.  She recognizes this change in focus in the definition of property (from “self-propriety” to ownership of objects, even if those objects are persons), shows the effect is qualitative, not merely quantitative.  It is a drastic shift to fragment the idea of person from “who someone is in relationship to a community” to “what objects or territory he can claim exclusive title to.”  It is one of many examples of “objectification,” living as if all reality were I-It, none I-Thou.

Community means dealing with many essential and practical I-It issues, but in a context which honors the I-Thou reality.  “The Lockean paradigm” she characterizes as that in which “‘property in one’s person’ signifies radical individualism, instrumentalism, and a dualism between the body as commodity and the ‘person’ as transactor.”  Such depersonalization as American politics and economics are based in cannot be conducive to community.  The fact that many or most other societies are worse doesn’t make ours better.

Perhaps, as Buber hypothesizes in I and Thou, there was true community of human persons once, somewhere.  Perhaps there was a paradise of primitives in which humans lived by nature as intuitively aware and functional in relation to each other.  Whether historically so or not, all our myths (including the Bible’s, Milton’s, Rousseau’s and Locke’s) describe our fall from it.

I think we have not fallen but, as Buber makes clear, as the I-It realm has expanded in our lives the I-Thou presence of the whole truth of our relationships has been eclipsed from our view.  I believe its influence has not disappeared, or we would have perished already; at least our humanness would have evacuated us even more completely than it has.

We struggle, certainly, but we struggle with ourselves.  If world feeling is valid, the split in society is something like the fragmentation of my self.  It can be reintegrated.

Throughout all the considerations you have so far joined me in we have encountered ironies and paradoxes.  So, what’s new?  One of our oldest preserved writers, Parmenides19, has shown the way of truth is unified, but the view of human convention is fragmented.  His teacher, Pythagoras, is poorly known to us, but we have reason to believe he placed heavy emphasis on relationship rather than object as essential to the understanding of reality (that number is in harmony, not just quantity).

Community must come from a grounding in the I-Thou relation, whether it is honored consciously or lived intuitively.  World feeling, even for a relatively small world, cannot come from the adversities of an overwhelmingly I-It world.  Materialism and seeking of power are not the sources of our strength to survive and be real selves; nor can we solve our problems by the counterbalancing of power (e.g., “interest groups”) which we attempt in contracts, compromises, truces and deals of any sort.  (There is no offer I cannot refuse; I do not have a price, no matter how high.)  To live in such a “give-and-take” only deprives me of my basic humanity, my personal identity, if not of my life itself.

Hope for Love, Community and the Integration of the Self

I am not pessimistic; you knew that.  There is good reason for us to hope for love and community, even though we have little of those now.  I showed I had a self by showing I could recognize your self.  I showed that relationship is more real than all the stuff which surrounds us, that Professor Buber had given us a simple key to understanding relationships which previously baffled us.

We have each had some taste of the hypothetical paradise of the “primitive.”  We had it in our infancies, or we would not have survived to self-awareness.  So, it is in the unborn infant we can have hope.  If we raise our awarenesses of what it is to be human and what it is to be a person, if we strive to keep in mind that true community is conceivable, we may come to raise children in a more sane fashion.  They will not live lives without trauma, but they can have the flexibility to survive and to nurture their own children with the hope you and I have rediscovered, which we have bequeathed to them.  Let us not agonize over our past failures, but together for the duration do what we can to promote the wholeness of our lives, our loves and our communities.


1Dialogue Without Heart

2 Broken Heart

3 Dark Alien, Red Woman

4 Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Walter Kauffman, Scribner’s, New York, 1970

5 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, W. W. Norton, New York, 1945, page 391

6 op. cit., page

7 op.cit., page 512

8 Leslie H. Farber, The Ways of the Will, Basic Books, New York, 1966, page 125

Nathan Pollack, MD
Denver, Colorado
October 10, 2005
Roberta Pollack
Portland, OR
Dear Mother,
It is a joy to learn and it is a joy to be surprised.  I had all intentions to go out to work today, but all the patients I need to see are state employees, and today is Columbus Day.
Your brother told me Professor Buber believed there could be no I-Thou relationship between a person and herself or himself, for Buber (a correspondent over decades with both Freud and Jung) did not subscribe to theories of the unconscious.  You see, in order to have an I-Thou relationship there must be the capacity to be surprised by the other, but without an unconscious I cannot be unaware of myself so cannot be surprised.  Brilliant, but in error, as I have shown in my essay “Buber’s I-Thou Relationship Applied to the Self” and as I have proven again this morning by being unaware it is a state holiday and I cannot see my patients as I had intended.
I learn from this, as we each learn daily, that I am not aware of everything, that I am not in control of everything and that my sincere intentions may need to be readjusted or even scrapped.  And it is a joy to be open to learning, for there is always something new in this universe which I do not control.  As I reminded you in our phone call two days ago, it was cloudless and a record-breaking upper-eighties.  Today it is snowing, a full three weeks earlier than our usual first snow (which, I remember from being the father of small children, is almost always on Halloween starting warm and sunny in the afternoon but as evening begins turns cold and icy, harsh wind flailing as little ones in plastic superhero capes and pink tutus turn blue scuttling for more candy, refusing to call it a night to go home to hot chocolate and a warm fireplace whining, “Just one more house, Dad, please!”--and you stay out of sight behind the bushes holding the cold flashlight shivering for your babies).
We learn, and we remember.  I spoke to you Saturday evening from Mabel Anderson’s back yard where I was listening to her new book of poems (which I enclose for you to share with your community, a CD recording of her reading them in the back of the book).  I told you how proud I am of you that you are learning, doing something brave and new, uncharacteristic of your old self.  Instead of giving to everyone (whether they want it or not) you are learning gracefully and gratefully to receive.  That is brave and practical as well.  It is not very easy to readjust habits and expectations, but often it is our task.
I also expected today to mail you this note and Mabel’s book and my essay on Alzheimer’s, but I cannot for it is Columbus Day and the post office is closed as well.  (Bummer!)
Ah, well.  My love to you,  Nathan

10 R. P. Petchesky, “The Body as Property:  A Feminist Re-vision, in Conceiving the New World Order, edited by Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995.

11 John Locke, On Property

12 Rosalind S. Pollack, The Individual’s Rights and International Organization, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1966.

13 Maurice Friedman, various works from Martin Buber:  The Life of Dialogue (1955) to Martin Buber’s Life and Work (1983), and much else between and since.

14 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.

15 Buber, op. cit., pages 80-81.

16 Buber, op. cit., page 95.

17 All is intertwined, of course.  My mother’s brother was one of the few Jewish conscientious objectors during the Second World War, which served as a model of pacifism for me.  It was at that time he discovered Buber for himself, Hasidism the connection.  He had not realized that his parents came from Hasidic backgrounds.  My mother’s parents, models of benignity to me, were problematic to my uncle.  Despite my rapprochement with my father, I do not deny my early warfare with him (though to his death he denied his own warfare with his father).  Your family interrelationships are more dramatic in your soul than are mine, which I have tried unsuccessfully to keep contained in this footnote.

18 from the two volumes of John Macmurray’s Gifford Lectures of 1953-1954 (University of Glasgow), “The Form of the Personal,” published as The Self as Agent  and Persons in Relation by Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1957.  Buber and Macmurray knew their conceptions were contemporary and harmonious, but their written correspondence is not available to us because Mrs. Macmurray took the opportunity each time they moved to clean out and burn“ old junk” including his papers and her own paintings, and if Buber’s files contain those letters I have not yet heard of it.  When Doctor Friedman was researching those files in Jerusalem for his biographies of Buber he did not note Macmurray’s letters, nor did he pay much attention to Macmurray’s work even after Macmurray on his trip to the United States (without his wife) came Sarah Lawrence College to lecture, and dropped by to visit Friedman in his own office there!

19 Parmenides, most notably in the poetic translation of Stanley Lombardo, Parmenides and Empedocles, Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, 1982.

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