Through a Jungian Lens

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I-Thou and I-It Relationships

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In early spring, one of the first flowers in our garden is this little guy, a wild and free-spirited pansy.  This particular plant caught my eye on a day that was dark and gray.  For a moment I began to think that the pansy was animated, looking at me for recognition, daring me to look back and confirm the connection.  Okay, I know, it is just a plant and it doesn’t have a sense of self-awareness or awareness of others.  I do understand that this is simply my imagination running wild again – active imagination.

This idea of connection reminded me of Martin Buber’s work, I and Thou, where the “self” as identified as “I” and that this self stands in relation to the world in two ways with both a subjective and an objective attitude.  Buber calls these two attitudes I-Thou and an I-It.  I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert, let alone an expert on Buber and his work.  Still, I can speak of what I understand and where these thoughts lead me in terms of understanding relationships such as my relationship to this pansy which for a moment in my head, became a holder of my projections.

The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being.  The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.” (Buber, I and Thou, p. 54)

As I understand it, for Buber there is no “self” that exists without an “other.”  Now this does make sense to me in a way as I do understand how my sense of self grows out of unconsciousness.  And I do understand, how my personal unconscious is encased in a larger collective unconsciousness.  I understand how over time I come to differentiate myself from other in order to get a sense of “I.”   And, I can understand how the relationship to other is framed within me as either as a subjective or objective relationship, a “you/thou” relationship or an “it” relationship.  The “it” relationship has nothing to do with whether or not the object is a living person or a thing.  It is all about attitude, my attitude.

Buber talks about how attitude can shift from an “it” relationship to a “you” relationship, even in terms of a tree:

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. ” (p. 58)

This might sound like foolish talk but it is a way of thinking that was accepted by most older cultures and still can be found among some of today’s aboriginal peoples in a number of countries.  The shift from objective to subject is only achieved when one can get past the skin and enter into depth.  For example, a stranger is an “it” for most of us.  Becoming acquaintances does not alter our objective attitude toward this stranger who becomes an acquaintance.  As indicated by Buber, it takes more than contact to shift the attitude.  It takes a will combined with grace to achieve this.  It takes reciprocity for this shift of attitude between two people.

In my experiences, I find that this reciprocity in my face-to-face world only comes when I can see into the eyes of an “other” and that “other” looks back into my eyes confirming for both of us the real presence of each other.  At that moment, the shift from an I-It relationship to an I-Thou relationship has happened.  In this cyberspace world, I get the sense that we can have an “I-Thou” relationship because reciprocity is possible, only not through the eyes – it must come from the words in which we sense we are heard and are hearing the “other.”  A few final words from Buber:

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation:  relation is reciprocity.”  (p. 58)

Now, can I say that there is reciprocity in my relationship with this pansy?  Only in terms of becoming aware of a relationship that says that we are connected in universal terms, each being a part of the whole.


4 Responses

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  1. Very interesting. Very often one finds plants and trees speaking to one, as also one speaks to an animal at times. There is a communication , that is why people hug a tree and feel at peace, as though they have come home to mother. This is actually a very primal connection.if i look at the photo of the pansy,I do feel as though it is speaking, and looks so sure and strong and lovely in the surrounding dryness.

    abha iyengar

    May 30, 2010 at 6:09 am

    • There is something of value in the “primal” aspects of self that unconsciously connect to the world we so often dismiss. Thanks, Abha.

      Robert G. Longpré

      June 1, 2010 at 2:52 pm

  2. Thank you for your posting.
    The part that you said about the time when you feel like going into the I-though phase with other person is something I feel so too.

    상화 한

    August 11, 2013 at 4:59 pm

  3. “…will combined with grace..” Beautifully put.

    Jadi Campbell

    August 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm

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