I and It – two directions for living and working

178px-Martin_Buber_portraitMartin Buber, a towering philosopher of the last century, points out that there are essentially two choices in our relationships with people.

In an I-You relationship, the other is a person to us. Mysterious, never completely knowable, and of infinite value simply because they are.

In an I-It relationship, the other person is a means to an end, of no more interest than an object or any other entity that could give me what I want. An ‘it’ is simply there:

to sell to
to do what I want them to do
to make me feel better
to show me how talented I am
to provide for me
to bolster my self-esteem
to be the target of my scorn
as an escape from something else
to idolise
to be dismissed
to get out of my way
to make me my coffee
to deliver the figures
to make me look good
to blame
to be manipulated
to take my mind off things
to make me happy
to ignore

An ‘it’ is anything but mysterious, simply of value to me as long as they perform according to my expectations.

We’ve built the world of work around turning people into ‘it’, because it looks like it makes things manageable. That people are mysterious and unpredictable is inconvenient. It makes us anxious. So as long as people are objects and can be understood, it seems we can have them do what we want, and we can organise and corral them on a grand scale. And because of this we’ve built our society and many of our relationships with others in the same way.

The tragedy in all of this for each of us is that we’re never separate from our relationship with others. Relate in an ‘I-It’ way to others and pretty quickly you start to become an ‘it’ yourself.

I-You relating starts by seeing the extraordinary, unfathomable human being that’s present with you in any conversation, in any interaction. You could start next time you buy a coffee, next time you reach the supermarket checkout, next time you speak with a colleague, or with your loved ones.

Being in the world with this way is not only the foundation of compassion, it’s the necessary step for freeing ourselves from all the ways we too have become objects, means-to-an-end rather than fully, courageously alive.