Once, in ceremonial space, I went to work trying to arrive at a clear articulation of the fundamental principles of human reality. Drum roll, please. It all came down to two principles: 1. There is an other. 2. I care.
Now, this seemed strange to me. First because it was so simple. (Then I remembered that was me generating the principles, so it had to be simple!) And secondly, because they came to me in the midst of one of my most profound experiences of alienation and separation.
To cut to the chase, I was in the midst of recapitulating a very early experience of abandonment, which led my tender soul to conclude that I was completely on my own. There was no apparent “other”, in any real sense—that is anybody showing empathy or tenderness, or conveying to me that they knew me and cared deeply about me.
So, these two principles arrived as correctives to a traumatized me, that left me with an early belief system that there was no “other”. In order to survive, I told myself that I didn’t care. But actually I did, and deeply. But pretending not to care kept the inconsolable sorrow at bay. I spent a good part of the rest of my life running from that sorrow. Until, I couldn’t anymore.
In the ceremony, I began to feel the second principle. It went from being an intellectual proposition to an unspeakable sadness. If only I didn’t care. But that turned out to be a strategy with limited shelf-life. On the other hand, it lasted for almost 60 years. I could now look back at my life and see how the illusion that I didn’t care impacted relationships and choices all my life, and left me feeling isolated inside, while outside I was frenetically busy with all kinds of people and projects.
As a theologian I grant the first principle, there is an Other, ontological status. This “Other”—what philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber, calls “Thou”—is my understanding of G_d, the unnameable Mystery whose very being is love. And for love to have ontological status implies relationality, and that the universe was born, and is born, moment by moment, out of a milieu of relationality. Out of Relationality emerges others (creation, humans, higher spiritual beings) to love. Which is pretty much the only game in town worth playing, I figure.
Yet, in the modern era, as Buber and others point out, we are born into the illusion of isolation, where people, places, and things are there primarily to be used by us, so that our separate selves can be built up, consolidated, and become evermore real. But this instrumental way of being in the world and viewing others (which Buber calls the “I-it” stance, leaves us feeling isolated, and in that isolation, anxious and desperate.
This last 300 years or so has been marked by increasing sense of loneliness and isolation. But we rarely understand why. Especially in the Western World, where there is more affluence, what do we possibly have to complain about? If you feel like you’ve heard this before, it’s because you probably have—in your families who treated your longing for connection and tenderness as the expression of an ungrateful child. You were fed, clothed, taxied around for goodness sake. What on earth do you have to complain about?
This is part of the insanity that passes for the “real” world of economics, which every politician, including Donald Trump, believes to be the endgame of being human.
It is trauma, early childhood emotional trauma, in the form of neglect, withholding of love, physical and sexual abuse, that predisposes us to accommodate to insanity—the world of I-It, in which there are no genuine others that we actually care about; just economic units, workers, assets, board feet of timber (not a forest of thous). When we awaken to the insanity, we awaken to grief—to the realization that because we were treated as its, mere instruments of others whims at a very early age, we can treat others, animate and inanimate, in the same way without puking.
The journey back requires puking up the reign of I-it in the world an din our lives. The journey back to actually caring about the World, in all its forms, as “Thou”, involves a death of the compensated self (which compensated from the trauma of being treated as an it when we’re actually thous). Another way of saying this is that the “I” that comes into play in the realm of I-it takes a back seat, as we learn to negotiate the world from the realm of the I-Thou. As we do we become human again, in a world that has forgotten what that means.
Every time we stand in relation to the other as thou, whether it’s a tree, an insect, a human being, or a rock, the Great Thou is present, because Thou (the realm and being of Original Relationality) is the Matrix out of which everything emerged and continues to emerge. Thou is present in every encounter with thou.
So what does this feel like in real life? The other day, I had an appointment with my therapist. Prior to the session I experienced ecstatic anticipation of being with an “other” who could be present with me. I cared. He cared. We had this opportunity to bridge each other’s otherness, and find in that primordial relatedness the sheer pleasure of being human. The pleasure is in the relation. The “I” is in the relation. There is no “I” that is real outside the relation. The “I” is in the heart connection. This is joy.
When we stand in the realm of I-it, there can be no joy. Joy can only thrive in the context of trusting relationship, in the realm of I-thou. I knew that I would be stepping out of time and space for a brief time into the eternal realm, where there is an “other” and “I care”.
For me, this is what constitutes the psychotherapeutic relationship. It’s a sacred space where we are given the opportunity to come in out of the realm of I-it, and return to the eternal sanctuary and reality of I-Thou/thou.