English grammar has three sets of personal pronouns.
• First person: I, me and mine.
• Second person: You and yours.
• Third person: He, she, and it; him, her; his, hers and its. (No, not “it’s”—that’s a contraction of it is.)
A century or so ago, German theologian Martin Buber applied those pronouns to human relations. We treat other people either as an “it” or as a “you,” he said.
Treating them as an “it” turns them into an object. The cashier at the supermarket, the kid who delivers your newspaper, the flagperson directing traffic around a construction site—we don’t see them as human beings. We don’t care if they have interesting lives. We don’t expect them to become friends. They’re just “things” that we encounter as we go about our daily lives.
The ultimate “it” treats people as slaves, expendable cogs in a machine.
Better, Buber suggested, if we treated people as “you”—or, in his terminology, as “thou,” if we acknowledged that those other persons were just as much human beings as we are, with just as much right to be recognized as individuals with likes and dislikes, passions and pains.
That doesn’t mean every person we meet has to become part of our family. It might just mean acknowledging that flagperson standing in the rain with a smile and a wave. Recognizing the cashier’s face. Discovering that the paper kid has a name.
It’s a way—to use a biblical illustration—of learning to love your neighbour as yourself. Of treating others as you would like to be treated.
But with all respect to Martin Buber, I think he missed a further step. He stopped at singular pronouns. We also have plural pronouns—we, you and they.
The same level of association applies. “They” implies an impersonal relationship—“they” keep raising our taxes, driving while drunk, digging up roads and voting for Donald Trump. “You” is more personal, more direct—“you” went to war, belong to another faith, got us into this mess.
But what about “we”?
Philosopher and futurist Ken Wilber postulates that all of us develop a sense of our individual identity—“I”. But we also yearn to belong to something bigger, to transcend our smallness. Buber’s “I-thou” relationship may be closer, warmer, than “I-it” but it still leaves us as two separate identities like (to use a tired metaphor) ships that pass in the night.
An “I-I” relationship would be ultimate egotism, the realm of narcissists and psychopaths, the conviction that only I matter.
But we could seek “I-we” relationships.
That is, in fact, what most of us hope to do when we get married. We hope, we believe, that two can become one.
For the same reason, we ally ourselves to causes: Civil rights, religion, politics, ecology…. We remain individuals, but we immerse ourselves in the larger body. Many people find their most memorable experiences in being part of a sports team, a military unit, a protest movement, in which the many became one.
I suggest that “I-we” is also the goal of prayer. Not to beg favours from a distant deity. Rather, to become one with God, so that God’s will, God’s goals, become ours.