I, Thou, and the Infinite: Meditation on Martin Buber

I, Thou, and the Infinite: Meditation on Martin Buber

Being an existential psychotherapist entails the holding of some primary values for me, the most central being the power of relatedness and its contribution to the healing process. I have read article after book after article that includes references to the I-Thou versus I-It relationship as pertaining to the writing of Martin Buber, almost to the degree that I felt as if I had read Martin Buber myself. Buber is a staple to existential thought. Because of this, I decided to finally move beyond the references and read Martin Buber myself. Indeed, the I-Thou relationship as it pertains to the ability for one to be present remained true to my expectations, and yet in my reading I found more to Martin Buber’s discussion of relatedness and presence that I would like to expand upon. This “more” that I refer to is the infinite, ergo our relationship to the cosmic mystery as it presents itself through encounter. This is relationship beyond the straight line of duality. This is relationship with multiplicity and possibility.

Buber prefaced I and Thou with a striking quote by Goethe: “So, waiting, I have won from you the end: God’s presence in each element.” I was immediately intrigued, not aware of the inherent foreshadowing. I stumbled upon statement after impactful statement about how God presents himself through encounter. I want to take care and clarify that Buber used a rather liberal definition of God, and perhaps would have protested that God is not something to even be defined. Although I don’t sense that his was a secular God, I believe that Buber was progressive in his time for his ability to be non-exclusive and entertain diversity in his explorations. Buber researched Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism to support his thesis that I and Thou are the hinge and the door that open to something much more expansive than what is confined to the boundaries of our own skin. Rather, Buber alluded to God as a process rather than a personified being, thus supporting the notion that the very lens through which we see, the lens that lends itself to the I and It relationship, is unavoidably narcissistic in that we only see our own collective reflection: “For he alone confronts the reality of God with a human reality,” (Buber, p. 104). All people understand what we understand, being that we are the locus of our experience. However, Buber highlighted the poverty of only existing in the realm of I-It, and the necessity of I-Thou to humanity as follows: “. . . without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man,” (p. 34). This is reminiscent of the Biblical assertion in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” The majority of men and women have demonstrated their necessity for the spiritual, no matter how defined, in order to live a life that entails a sense of meaning and value. I assert that we gather our meaning through interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.

I propose that to move beyond the limitations of I-It, we drop our narcissistic defense of certainty and embrace humility and wonder: the facing of our vulnerabilities and acknowledgement of our limitations that brings us closer to the cosmos. It is this courageous embracing of our inevitable “not knowing” that moves us beyond our limited self and into the presence of countless possibilities. As Buber states, “It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds,” (p. 4). How terrifying to drop our defenses and move beyond the bounds of what we know. It brings a whole new meaning to the term “fear of God.” This concept highlights a different kind of fear: the very fear that is paired with the highest courage: the courage to persist in exploration beyond what we can only perceive. This courage leads to a freedom that transcends conceptualizing, offered through Buber’s affirmation:

The free man is he who wills without arbitrary self will. He believes in reality, that is, he believes in the real solidarity of the real twofold entity I and Thou. He believes in destiny, and believes that it stands in need of him. It does not keep him in leading-strings, it awaits him, he must go to it, yet does not know where it is to be found. But he knows that he must go out with his whole being (p. 59).

As a result of my own reflections on Buber’s work and what it means to be present not only to another person, but God in a more expansive and fluid sense, I came to a very powerful conclusion: to be present with another is not just to be focused on that person (i.e. – not distracted by my own agenda, other stimuli in the room, etc.). To be present is an attempt to be open to beyond what is immediately apparent to me. When I behold another, I am beholding a world of infinite possibilities, both painful, bound, and even malevolent, but also divine, unencumbered, and capable of great joy. I can listen to a story, and yet I can know that the story I hear is only one point of light that I happen to be standing directly in front of. However, the person I behold exudes multitudinous rays of light that I can barely fathom to see. And the same is true for me. I am aware that the possibilities I have within me are infinite, and that it becomes even more apparent to me when I am in relationship with someone who is just a few steps beyond my little skull and skin encapsulated world. When I attempt to hear something outside of myself and actually hear something new, my sense of self expands and my horizon is broadened. The relevance of this to the aforementioned freedom is that this kind of interaction not only illuminates the many wondrous aspects of self via reflection and absorption that can occur through relationship, it also builds bridges to roads that people may not even think they are capable of traveling: roads that lead to a becoming we cannot yet behold, but place our faith in. The benevolence of a present interaction with another person can help build that faith, for we are presenting that hopeful part of our self that another may not yet identify with. However, our persistence to believe in the potential of another may lay a solid foundation for the faith that is necessary, i.e. the “daily bread” that sustains us during our great adventure through life as we best know it.

The concept of infinitude as an inherent quality of presence is relevant to the currency we use in our exchanges in the mental health system, especially managed care. As clinicians, we ask people to come see us so they can overcome their limitations, and yet we use the warped lens of diagnostic language that narrows our vision and truncates the vast spirits of our clients. We also limit ourselves, challenged by the pressure to work within treatment frameworks that do not lend themselves to creative, spontaneous psychotherapy. My best interventions have never come from a manual. They have, however, seemed to pop up out of nowhere because of what presented itself in the room in the moment. I am not saying that a diagnostic template is completely useless, but that it is not the “bread” of our work. The old adage about plans pertains here: planning is priceless but plans are useless. Preparation is great, but systems that exist for the sake of the system and offer no flexibility often times fail. They close us off from the possibilities of our clients, and they close us off from the possibilities of ourselves. I propose that a truly therapeutic relationship is informed by a humble acknowledgement of the sacred beyond: a beyond that is actually only beyond our perception, but truly exists within the felt sense of the in-between that occurs in the room in which we sit, or as Martin Buber would have called it, the I-Thou. I call it the I, Thou, and Infinite. Therefore, I will close with the following excerpt:

Between you and it there is mutual giving: you say Thou to it and give yourself to it, it says Thou to you and gives itself to you. You cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it, you are alone with it. But it teaches you to meet others, and to hold your ground when you meet them. Through the graciousness of its comings and goings it leads you away to the Thou in which the parallel lines of relations meet. It does not help to sustain you in life, it only helps you to glimpse eternity (p. 33).

— Candice Hershman

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Buber, M. (1958). I and thou: Second edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.