A Conversation about I and Thou

May 29, 2016 | Mood

Remember the last time you worked a concession stand? You wore your team’s t-shirt and took money and gave out candy bars? Remember how odd it felt when people handed you their dollar bills without any eye contact? Like you’re the generic concession-stand-worker-dad/mom-body-who-distributes-Pepsi-and-doesn’t-exist-when-I-walk-away?

Sometimes I feel like a thing, instead of a person.

A woman.

A daughter.

A therapist.

A middle-aged mom.

I become an object. This happens when I’m with someone who sees my exterior role but can’t hear the specifics of who I am. Someone who expects me to do a certain thing (like show up and smile) but who has no concept of my individual life, with its stress and goals and complexities.

This is objectification. We all do it, pretty much all the time.

I had a conversation recently with my husband, Dr. Joe Hulgus, about when we feel like objects in the eyes of others.

Me: So, you think objectification relates to our global economic problems and terrorism?

Joe: Yes. Every day, we hear about bombings, mass shootings, and other obvious violence – as well as the less obvious forms (like rampant porn addiction, drug addiction, and poor behavior by our top politicians). People blame these tragedies on “craziness,” “mental illness,” “stupidity,” or “poor parenting.”

But I think all sorts of bad behavior are rooted in how we interact on a daily basis.

Martin Buber (1878 – 1965), a theologian, wrote that we relate to each other in one of two ways:

I/Thou…and, I/It.

In the I/Thou relationship, according to Buber, the boundaries between you and another person recede into the background and you experience true communion.   Like a state of oneness.

Me: Buber believed we have to meld into each other in order to have true connection?

Joe: Sort of. A deep empathy at least. Looking at that person pan-handling at the stoplight and feeling a softness, as if that could be me. That is me. Because, on some level, that is all of us.

The other way of relating, according to Buber, is the “I/It.” I/It objectifies.  We turn the thing encountered into an image that serves the purpose of being used or experienced or ignored by us.

When we turn someone into an IT…a hot guy, a fat person, a Muslim, an atheist, an old lady; this objectification frees us to use them in any way we see fit to meet our own needs, without regard to the well being of that person or dog or tree.  For instance, we wouldn’t worry about the feelings of an orange as we peel and eat it. It’s just an orange. I/It allows us to treat people, animals, plants, the earth…as commodities, without distinct worth or value outside of what they can do for “I.”

Me: What happens when we get turned into ITs inside our relationships?

Joe: We feel it. We get depressed. We experience a drop in energy. We may pull away – or we may try desperately to engage in a different way, to convince the other person we’re real.

Me: When I feel myself being objectified or commodified, I get tired and slip into brain fog. I leave the scenario with a vague sense of hopelessness.

I imagine that person pan-handling by the road feels herself being ITted. I admire her for standing there all day being turned into an object for scorn and pity.

Joe: Yes. So, imagine this happening on a global level. How are these micro-interactions shaping our world?

Me: And our parenting? Children get treated as commodities all the time. Like they can be assaulted and not take it as brutality.

Joe: Yes. We feel this. And we respond by feeling disenfranchised, angry, hopeless.

Me: Instead of deeply connected to every living thing. Whoa… (lapse into deep thought). I need to sleep on this. You have such a good brain.

Joe: That’s why you married me. For my brain.



Contact me if you’d like to talk about objectification in your life.




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