How do you relate to the world around you? Is it an I-You relationship or an I-It? It’s an important question. When we say I-You there is relation, there is room for the spirit, it is encompassing. When we say I-It, it is just a one-way street—an expression of power, the world is only composed of lifeless inanimate objects, and there can be no two-way conversation.
Martin Buber’s classic book “I and Thou” discusses the basic structure of how we relate to what is beyond ourselves. Although this Jewish philosopher and mystic published the book (in German, “Ich und Du”) in 1923, it feels very contemporary, and illuminates how the conflicts and problems that humanity faces are at heart spiritual problems.
About these two word pairings Buber wrote, “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.”
I first grasped what he meant when he gave the example of contemplating a tree. He first enumerated the various ways we are able to observe a tree. Then he wrote, “Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition. 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.”
I understood about the trees. In my lonely childhood I would wander in the silence of the woods among the trees and be comforted by them.
Buber went on to say, “When I confront a human being as my You and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.” In this way, he showed me how we can enter into a living relationship with the world around us.
The annual New Year for Trees, Tu B’Shevat, which this year fell on January 16, is observed annually on the 15th day of the month of Shevat, when the first trees buds appear in Israel. The certificate I received as a child for planting a tree in Israel hangs above my desk. To plant a tree here or to have one planted in Israel is one way that has become increasingly popular for people to observe this Celebration of the Trees, as it is also called and which some compare to Arbor Day here.
On some days though it is not so easy for me to communicate with people, or even to feel a connection to the animals and trees. Sometimes I have to start a little closer to the earth. If I take my dog for a walk along the acequia, and if the stones I notice on the ground all seem to look broken, I search further, and look for more interesting shapes, colored rocks, heart-shaped rocks.
As I look further, for the magnificent, the transcendent, I find smooth stones, natural arrowhead shapes, stones with smiling faces and sad faces, and even occasionally stones with enigmatic Hebrew-looking letters and symbols. And, in their way, the stones speak to me and give me messages.
Holding a smooth stone in my hands, I begin to notice more of my surroundings. I am consoled by a small breeze, a passing crow raises my sights. Sandhill Cranes loft on a thermal high above. A small puffy cloud lifts my spirits and resets my balance. The trees again surround me. That little stone has become a touchstone for finding my center and place in the universe.
Then if I consider that I-You relationship as a touchstone for making sense of the problems in the world, it becomes easy to see when fundamental principles are being violated, when an I-It approach has taken over. I-It is the way of control, of domination, in a relationship, and leads eventually to a police state, and it makes a society lifeless, unsustainable.
Or even worse, robotic. If we have already stopped relating to nature, the time is not far off, if it is not already here, when people will not be considered either. When there is talk only of numbers, when people are completely left out of the equation, the social contract becomes inhuman, an It-It relationship. It is surprising to see how quickly the mechanics of greed can take over.
In its simplest expression the I-You relation is the Golden Rule, frankly difficult to follow for me personally, and certainly I don’t see governments behaving any better. Maybe if we practice the Golden Rule in relation to the trees around us, if we nurture and respect them as we would want them to nurture and respect us, we might see our way to a sustainable future. Otherwise, dear old Mother Earth might just decide she doesn’t need us either, and she’s bigger.
Diane Schmidt is an internationally published and award-winning writer and photojournalist.
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Schmidt has been a regularly contributor to The New Mexico Jewish Link since 2010, where this column appears monthly. An earlier version of this story was in the Gallup Independent January 11, 2014, Spiritual Perspectives column, page 21, where she has been a regular contributor since 2009.