‘It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.’ John Andrew Holmes
These words of John Andrew Holmes really made me sit up and think when I saw them for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The ‘trifling exception’ he refers to, is, of course, ‘I’; all the rest of the universe – planets, continents, seas, animals, forests, and the six billion people I share the earth with, constitute the ‘other’.
On the one hand there’s me, and on the other there’s everything else that is not me. In addition to presenting me with a sobering evaluation of my apparent lack of importance in the whole scheme of things, Holmes’ words also provoke what is probably the most significant religious question of all, indeed, probably the most pressing human question of all: how do I, this ‘trifling exception’ relate to ‘the other’? In a sense, all morality, all ethics, can be reduced to this question.
It was this question which haunted the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, and which prompted him to write his classic work I-Thou. It first appeared in German in 1923, and was translated into English a decade or so later, becoming one of the seminal religious books of the 20th century. It’s not an easy read, so I’m not recommending that you go out and buy it, but the central idea of the book can be put very simply: I relate to ‘the other’ either as an ‘it’ or as a ‘thou’, either as an object to be used, or as a subject with whom I can enter into relationship.
Buber deals principally with relations among human beings, but his idea can be extended to incorporate virtually every aspect of experience. What, for instance, is my relationship with God? Is God to me simply a convenient idea, a stop-gap notion which will suffice until some other explanation of things is available? Is God to me a mysterious but impersonal power upon which I can call when adverse circumstances demand, but which I can ignore during more tranquil times? If so, then God to me is an ‘it’, in absolute contrast to the Biblical tradition which speaks of ‘the living God’, ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’, a God who enters into relationship, who calls me by my name, who, in the words of the Psalmist, ‘knit me together in my mother’s womb’, and who, according to the Gospels, numbers even the hairs on my head, the God whom Jesus calls ‘Abba’, a Hebrew word which is best translated not even as Father, but as Daddy.
I can also hold up to scrutiny my attitude to the earth. Do I see it as an inert mix of rock, soil, and water, which exists for me to exploit for my own selfish purposes, or should I approach the earth, as people of more primitive societies have approached it, as a living entity which graciously cooperates with me to provide my physical needs, and which therefore should be treated with respect and love? Is the earth, from which my physical body springs, my ‘mother’, as the Native Americans would say, and therefore not an ‘it’ to be used but a ‘thou’ to be cherished?
It is, however, in my attitude to my fellow human beings that the ‘I-It’ or ‘I-Thou’ attitude is most pertinent to my daily life. There can be no doubt that my natural tendency is to view other humans as objects, and this is the fundamental reason why there is crime, war, violence and mayhem. In order to injure or kill human beings I have first to objectify them, to see them as ‘other’, as alive, perhaps, but in a different way from the way that I am alive. Part of this process of objectification is classification, lumping people together in categories so that we can spare ourselves the burden of actually encountering them as individuals. Queers, Prods, Lesbos, Yids, towel-heads, are easy to abuse, ridicule, and even kill: it’s much harder to do the same to John, Mary, Peter, or Jane, individuals with a name, a history, relatives, careers, aspirations.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes an encounter between a German soldier and the body of a British soldier he has just stabbed.
Comrade, I did not want to kill you…. … But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth an appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are just poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying, and the same agony – forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away those rifles and this uniform you could be my brother……Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up – take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now. (Peace Prayers, page 32)
It’s unlikely that anyone here has had or ever will have the kind of experience described by Erich Maria Remarque. But the principle of objectification holds good even in the less dramatic circumstances of our own lives. How often do we perceive other people as functions, limiting our appreciation of them to the purely superficial service they provide for us? Here are two examples to which I am sure we can all relate. The first is by Rabbi Harold Kushner.
Many years ago, in an eleventh-grade English class, I read a short story about the wife of a British colonel in India who was expecting important guests for tea one afternoon. She looked out from her front porch after lunch and was horrified to see that the man who swept the leaves off her stairs every morning had not shown up for work. When he finally arrived, she tore into him. ‘Don’t you realise what you’ve done to me? Do you know who is coming here in an hour? I ought to fire you and see to it that you never get another job anywhere in this city!’ Without looking up, the man quietly said, ‘I’m sorry. My little girl died during the night, and we had to bury her today.’ For the first time, the colonel’s wife was made to see this man not simply as a device for getting her stairs swept but as a human being with a world of needs, pain, relationships to which she had never given thought. Suddenly, he had become a subject, a ‘thou’, a possessor of feelings, rather than an object.
(Rabbi Harold Kushner, Who Needs God, pages 96-7)
The second is a true story, written by Joanne C. Jones.
During my second month of nursing school, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and had breezed through the questions, until I read the last one: “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?” Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50s, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our quiz grade. “Absolutely,” said the professor. “In your careers you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say ‘Hello’.”
I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.
(‘Inspiration Peak’ – Internet)
Last Wednesday I watched an episode of The Apprentice on BBC 1. One of the contestants aiming to become Sir Alan Sugar’s apprentice was a young man called Kevin who was desperate to impress Sir Alan, his fellow contestants, and the viewers with his business acumen and his ruthless attitudes. He told us: ‘I owned my first house at twenty, my second house at 23, and a Porsche at 24. I aim to become Britain’s most successful and richest businessman and I don’t mind who or what I have to step on in order to achieve my ambitions.’ His words amused me a little – after all, he’s only young – but they dismayed me, too, because of what they imply about the kind of society we live in. Why did he feel it acceptable, necessary even, to tell us how callous he is? He would probably be ashamed to admit to his secret sexual fantasies, or his unsavoury personal habits, but he has no shame whatsoever about telling millions of viewers how unconcerned he is about the feelings of others. He was announcing it with pride.
It may be just because I’m getting older, but I am becoming aware of a growing tendency towards impersonal encounter. It’s significant that to airlines and rail companies we are no longer ‘passengers’ but ‘customers’; to utility companies we are ‘consumers’; and banks and building societies now sell ‘products’ they don’t offer services. Emphasising the purely commercial nature of these transactions serves further to erode the personal, relational element they used to carry.
As Morag and I were walking towards the church the other evening we noticed that nearly everyone we passed was either using a phone – to text or to call – or listening to an MP3 player. Two people were even telephoning as they were riding their bikes! It certainly seemed as if the majority were engaged either in a solitary activity which excluded the people around them, or were relaying messages to people at a distance, all the while ignoring those who were close by. I frequently encounter young men and women on the stairs of my apartment building who find it almost impossible to respond to a ‘Good morning’ or a ‘Hello’, and I am horrified to see – as I frequently do see – people in shops and supermarkets carrying on inane telephone conversations while totally ignoring the person who is attending to them.
These are trivial examples, but they are symptomatic of what the philosophers call ‘solipsism’, the tendency to close in on the self and ignore ‘the other’. Autism is a particularly difficult manifestation of this, but while most of us mercifully escape such an extreme and debilitating condition, we are all somewhere on the spectrum. We all have a natural predisposition towards the ‘I-It’ mode of being, towards depersonalising and objectifying ‘the other’. The classic scriptural description of this prevailing human condition comes in the Gospel story of the blind man who is cured in two stages by Jesus. After rubbing the man’s eyes with spittle, Jesus asks him, ‘What can you see?’ ‘I can see people, but they look like walking trees,’ replies the man. Jesus has to rub the man’s eyes once more in order to cure him completely. This is our situation: as we look around we see animated entities with limbs just like our own, but we don’t really encounter them as thinking, breathing, loving, hurting, rejoicing selves; they are objects not subjects; each is an ‘it’ not a ‘thou’.
We don’t overcome this tendency simply by wishing it away. We genuinely need to make an effort, daily, hourly even, in our most casual encounters and in our intimate ones to be aware of ‘the other’ as a ‘thou’. And there’s more to this than mere politeness. The papers have been full this week of the chilling story from Austria of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter locked up for 24 years and fathered seven children by her. According to his neighbours Fritzl was charming and polite, illustrating Hamlet’s opinion that ‘one can smile and smile and be a villain’.
Each night before falling asleep we should review our various encounters in the light of this vital distinction between ‘it’ and ‘thou’. Ask yourself:
Did I treat so-and-so as a person or as a function?
Did I give my friend the same opportunity to talk to me as I assumed for myself in talking to her?
Did I blame anyone today for doing something that I frequently do myself?
Did I judge another because of the category I’d placed them in rather than as an individual with a name and a history?
Or, to ask the one question which sums up all the rest: Did I encounter walking trees today, or people?
Ask these questions, or maybe think of some for yourself, and answer them honestly. Learning to see ‘the other’ as a thou’, not as an ‘it’ is the hardest task we humans face, and one of the most important functions of a religious community like our own is to help us to achieve it.
4th May, 2008
The Saturday after this sermon was delivered, the Guardian carried a piece by Simon Hoggart. After describing how a tasteless film about death called Three and Out has failed to excite the cinema-going public, he wrote: ‘But I still find more tasteless an announcement I heard on the tube this week. There were several delays on one line “owing to a customer under a train.” In what possible way was the poor wretch who ended their life this way “a customer”? Did they gain this status when they paid for a ticket, as they must have done to get access to the track? What was wrong with “person”? Does this grisly modern jargon pursue us even into the grave?’ (Guardian, 10th May, 2008)