It’s interesting how, for little kids, it’s sometimes natural for objects to come alive. If you’ve raised little kids, or if you can remember back into your own childhood, there were special objects that were alive for you, or for your kids. My daughter had a scarf she carried around everywhere, loved, and on occasion spoke to, a “mother substitute” I believe Walcot called it. My son had a little stuffed rabbit with long ears. Those ears definitely had feeling. My kids were always gentle with these objects, which they loved and needed because, obviously, these objects were alive.
In his book, I and Thou, Martin Buber understands this profoundly. For Buber there are only two possibilities when it comes to relationships. One, subject-to-object, or two, subject-to-subject. Buber refers to the first as an I-It relationship, and to the second as an I-You relationship. I-It relationships are utilitarian, and I-You relationships are existential, about mutual existence.
Buber goes into great depth around this simple idea. He explains how you can be in an I-It relationship with a person. If the reason for the relationship is utilitarian, a person can turn into an It. What can this person do for me? How can I best utilize this person? This is not the best model for developing empathy, compassion, or kindness. But we do it a lot. More than we might like to admit.
But, thankfully, we can also be in an I-You relationship with people, but not just with people, with anything. Of course if you are in an I-You relationship with another person, or with your beloved dog or cat, or with your blossoming apple tree in your backyard, you feel that this being is alive. You feel their existence. You are in their company. The moment is primarily about being with, and less about getting anything from, or anything done.
In Japanese Tea Ceremony, Chanoyu, someone may have just prepared a bowl of tea for you. You receive the bowl into your hands, and you can sense that someone made this bowl. Maybe this bowl is 200 years old, and has been lovingly passed down in your family through the generations. They say love runs downstream. You can see where your ancestor’s lips have touched this bowl because a person trained in Tea knows there’s an exact place to drink from a tea bowl. Your lips go exactly to where their lips have been. You can feel their lips touching your lips. You are in an I-You relationship with and through this object. You are being with this bowl beyond its utilitarian function. You touch this bowl, and literary and that means physically, you are touched by this bowl. You are communing. You are in a personal, and sacred, relationship.
It is not an overstatement to say that if you come to a felt understanding of this possibility, and you cultivate this imaginative, neurological, tactual way of relating to things, it will change your life forever. Before Jews open a Torah, someone cradles the Torah like a baby and walks around the Temple as people sing to the Torah. People kiss their prayer shawl, then touch the Torah with the part of the shawl they just kissed. What would it feel like to pick up a book you love, like a favorite book of poems, or a spiritual text, and kiss the book before you opened it and read from it? I invite you to try that. Strangely enough, practicing this way of being in I-You relationships, with objects, trains you to be in I-You relationships with people, sometimes more than any psychological teachings could ever do. It comes down to physical practice.
Here is my favorite quote about touching existence.
Being blind I thought I should have to go out to meet things, but I found that they came to meet me instead. I have never had to go more than halfway, and the universe became the accomplice of all my wishes…If my fingers pressed the roundness of an apple, I didn’t know whether I was touching the apple or the apple was touching me.
As I became part of the apple, the apple became part of me. And that is how I came to understand the existence of things.
As a child I spent hours leaning against objects and letting them lean against me. Any blind person can tell you that this exchange gives a satisfaction too deep for words…
Touching the tomatoes in the garden is surely seeing them as fully as the eye can see.
But it is more than seeing them. It is the end of living in front of things, and the beginning of living with them.
Jacques Lusseyran – from And There Was Light