Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Buber

On the Mountain – Roles or Relationships

Today the theme of second day of We Chose to Climb was clear and strong – not power – but relationships. The event itself was full of wonderful content – stimulating and moving – and again and again the presenters made the same point: what makes a positive difference is the reality of the relationship between two people.

And, after all – as Nick Andrews said: Who is helping who?

  • If I am Nadia’s personal assistant, am I helping her to get about and to communicate, or is she helping me to learn more and to earn a living?
  • If I am a social worker trying to establish a fair individual budget for Nadia, am I helping her or is she giving me an important paid job and the opportunity to develop?
  • If I am a senior manager organising disability services, am I helping her or is she giving me the means to have status and influence?

The answer is obvious – both are true – we help each other.

But actually that is not the critical question. The critical question is: Do we each behave as if we know that both are true?

I am afraid I have used this quote before – it is one of those observations I find so powerful:

He [Rebbe Shmelke] said: “The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.”

That is, interdependence is the only human reality. But if we don’t see our relationships as interdependent then we run the risk of creating a sense of worthless dependence on the one side and prideful disrespect on the other.

Of course good practitioners and professionals avoid this trap – everyday – they work with proper humility and respect – they understand the value of the other human being – in any circumstance.

What I think Self-Directed Support offers us is the opportunity to be more explicit about the true nature of that relationship. It does not aim to give the people who need assistance undue power over those who support them; instead it is as an effort to ensure that, when you need assistance, then you know that you are entitled to receive it and direct it. Receiving assistance should not feel like getting a charitable gift where the assistance is defined and controlled by someone else.

Rights are not at war with relationships – rights can restore us to proper relationship.

Self-directed support might be said to rebalance power relationships. Or perhaps better, self-directed support gives us the chance to build new forms of power together – in a relationship of equality.

But this is only the first step.

It is the human quality of that relationship that matters.

Sarah Taylor cited Martin Buber, one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century, who proposed that we can distinguish two radically different ways of relating ourselves to others:

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic world is the word pair I-Thou.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-Thou is different from that in the basic word I-It.

What Buber argues, in his classic I and Thou, is that there is all the difference in the world between seeing another person as just an object (may be a clever, active or pleasant object) and seeing them as a true person. For Buber this is connected to a theology that sees an element of God in everyone. But, even the non-religious, might recognise that, when we really connect with another person, we must be open to the power – the light – that burns within them.

This may seem a long way from the day-to-day realities of self-directed support, social work or personal assistance. But, up on the mountain, is this not the critical factor:

  • Can we rely on each other?
  • Do we trust each other?
  • Can we listen to each other?
  • Will we look after each other?

As Jamie Andrew explained to us this morning – the mountain can be beautiful, but it can also be a very dangerous place. You can die on the mountain. So – we need each other. But our pre-defined roles and expectations, our processes and our regulations, may simply not hack it on the mountain.

The only true security lies in our relationship with each other.

Love Needs Reality

Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance we have been loving an imaginary being. It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent the beloved from having lived.

That is the punishment for having fed love on imagination.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

A similar thought is found in Roger Scruton’s study, Sexual Desire, where he observes that erotic love must be attached to a particular person. An exact copy of the person will not replace that person for the lover. We really love a person – an irreplaceable soul – not a thing that can be copied and replaced.

This same thread of thought is also found in Martin Buber’s profound mediation on the human condition I and Thou. Buber explores the dichotomy between these two approaches to the world:

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic world is the word pair I-You.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.

 From Martin Buber’s I and Thou

Buber does not deny that sometimes we do treat other people as ‘Its’ [or as Kant would put it – as means rather than ends] but Buber argues that our ability to see the ‘You’ in another person is essential to our moral nature. Without this ability to engage in a real I-You dialogue, to see in the other a reality which is equal to, or greater than, our own, then we become an empty vessel.

But we do lose touch with the reality of You. (A reality which is at its most profound and mysterious in our relationship with God – where any possibility of experiencing an ‘It’ is missing).

A profound choice lies before us. The grave possibility of human existence is that we lose touch with the personhood that is essential to love, and essential to our own sanity. We can simply feed on others, losing sight of the inherent dignity of the human person, and in the process we lose the grounds for our own moral dignity.

What we love truly is real. But we can corrupt love not just by failing to love, but by loving what is empty, what is unreal. At our worst we are tempted to love evils, shadows, fantasies and idols. But even when we love people, things or ideals we can still lose sight of their reality.

People turn into relationships; things become our possessions, and ideals are just values. And so our imagination obscures reality.

It is not God, love, personhood or the soul that are imaginary. These are the real things. Rather it is our imagination which can hollow out reality and replace it with things that are more convenient to the self – things that are much easier for us to face, to consume or live up to.

We are offered wine; but we can choose to drink only water.

© 2017 Simon Duffy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑