“This, however, is the sublime melancholy of our lot that every You must become an It in our world.” Martin Buber
When Martin Buber talked about “You” and “It” he was describing a profound distinction that we can easily lose track of in our everyday experience. When “You” become an “It” to someone else, it means your essential humanity is diminished. The other person sees you solely as a “means” to their ends. For instance, we can easily forget the essential humanity of our customers, our sales people, our clients, our teachers and students, the men and women we see on the street, police officers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, or anyone else who colludes in the obfuscation of their essential “personhood” by assuming a role. Unfortunately we do this all the time, not only to the people we interact with daily in our work and consumer roles, and the other casual encounters of our lives, but also to the people we cherish and love the most.
In the case of relationship partners, this tendency to not see the “You” results from my need to experience your “qualities” in terms of how they reflect on me or serve me in my life. I have chosen you, we might say, as an “object” because you are beautiful, handsome, rich smart, funny, generous, talented, or a good cook. I have selected you for these qualities because they enhance my life. But what if you lose one of these qualities, are you then unworthy of my love? How do I love you if you lose the qualities that I have sought in you because they serve me? My challenge is to transform you from an “It,” an object that serves my needs, into a “You” whose essential being I value for yourself?
In order to do this I must be able to separate myself from my needs; to “transcend” them, if you will. As hard as it might be, we can aspire to a state of being wherein we are not our needs. This is confusing and difficult. We all have needs. God knows we have needs. But in order to relate to you as a “You,” in Buber’s terms, I must be able to experience “You” as a unique and separate being, and not simply as a means to my ends. And here’s another wrinkle: If I treat you solely as an instrument to my ends, the relationship must necessarily diminish you and sooner or later you will feel used and resent it. Finally, and ironically, to the extent that you are not a “person” to me in your own right, I will eventually come to have contempt for you because at my center, I want a relationship with a person rather than with an instrument, however useful.
Choosing to relate to a You as opposed to deriving benefits from an It in our relationships really makes a difference in our everyday experience. It behooves us to get clear about our relationship values. We must ask the question, What represents the greater value, choices that exploit our relationships to serve short term personal gain, often at the expense of our beloved or our beloved’s interests, or choices that serve You and Me and the entity that is us?” This choice requires maturity, self-discipline and adherence to the higher values reflected in the Relationship Arts.