In 1923 the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber published a short book called
I and Thou. It's a book about dialogue and relation,
about how human beings relate with the world, whether
the natural world of rocks, plants and animals, our
fellow human beings, or God, whom Buber understood in
the broadest, most ecumenical terms.
One key sentence in the book has stayed with me my
whole life: "Everything is meeting."
Buber submitted that our relations with the world could
be categorized in two ways: as reflecting an I-It relation,
or an I-Thou relation. Each relation is not just a posture
or attitude, but a mode of existence.
The I-Thou relation is the greater relation. In its
fullest embodiment, Buber imagined it as the relation
a person would have with God, something experienced
with the fullness of one's being. A great love or a
deep friendship would be more usual examples of an I-Thou
relation. Such a relation is characterized by engagement,
intensity, mutuality, presentness, trust, totality.
It is an encounter that is truly significant, that is
touched by grace.
The I-It relation involves a lesser or more partial
involvement, in which only a part of oneself is given
to the other. The It in question is not an object necessarily.
In human terms, it is most often a role played. The
relations between teachers and students, doctors and
patients, priests and parishioners, salespeople and
customers, bosses and employees would all be I-It relations.
The I-It relation is characterized by utility, design,
The I-It relation is not bad. In fact, it is essential
to the smooth functioning of any society. Every time
we act as cashier, customer, doctor, or writer-in-residence,
we enter a set-up that plays upon I-It relations. And
this is useful. I would not want to open myself up completely,
enter a soul communion, with every apprentice writer
who comes to see me. A cashier would want to do so with
customers in a supermarket even less so. It would simply
be too exhausting.
I-It relations are also essential to many spheres of
intellectual activity. The social and physical sciences
demand a certain detachment, as does the writing of
An I-It relation is fine so long as we realize the
limitations of It-ness. No I-It relation can encompass
the whole person or plumb the deeper meaning of life.
To stay too long at the level of I-It relations diminishes
our humanity, the humanity of both participants. For
the nature of the I changes depending on the relation
entered. In the I-It relation, the I, however benignly
or momentarily, is measuring, calculating, using. Not
so in the I-Thou relation, in which the I opens up,
trusts, lets go, affirms.
A relation, any relation, affects both participants.
Behind every It, we must not forget the Thou that exists.
In every person who is playing a role that is useful
to us, we must not be blind to the full human being
who is playing that role.
Buber called for an I-Thou relationship whenever possible,
and an I-It relationship whenever necessary.
I can think of no application of this philosophy that
is more urgent, more necessary, than now in our economic
relations with developing countries. Economic iniquity
breeds not only material poverty, but whole-person poverty.
And not only over there, in the Third World,
but within us, here.
The I-Thou, I-It distinction is the reason I believe
in fair trade; that is, trade that is characterized
by a concern for social and economic justice. Fair trade
coffee, the flagship fair trade item, is produced in
cooperatives characterized by fair wages, decent working
conditions, democratic involvement of the workers, and
concern for the environment. Fair trade coffee approaches
an I-Thou relation with those who supply us with our
In buying fair trade products, each one of us buys
into an act of respect towards the men and women who
have made that product.
We live in a world that is at present dominated by
It-ness, where profit and convenience often seem to
matter more than quality of life, than simple happiness
and harmony. Our relations with developing countries
have been especially marked by egregious It-ness.
The Thou-ness of fair trade is a way of reclaiming
our humanity and that of those who are less fortunate
than us. The I-Thou relation is not a matter of a rhapsodic
encounter with God. Buber did not believe in elites,
whether economic, hereditary or mystical. Giving oneself,
much like withholding oneself, is not a luxury affordable
only to a few. It is available to all. We must only
make the effort of reaching out.
lives in Saskatoon.