There’s always been a debate about how vulnerable people should be treated but really what it comes down to is this:
How do we meet each other?
Beyond the individual and idiosyncratic names of our deities, beyond what qualities we attribute to a cardinal point, whether we use cardinal points at all, is a need that yearns to be met, and that need is to be seen, respected and taken seriously.
Martin Buber was a genius communicator. Google ‘Communicator’ and a long list of corporate sites comes up, including, within the first 3, one that promises to ‘Make your existing offline network more efficient.’ Like frogs being slowly and contentedly boiled to death we are close to dystopia and as a society don’t have any real concept of what a relationship might be other than, ‘If it makes me feel happy it must be good.’ We are drowning in Soma.
For those of us who find ourselves in a position of service we more than ever need to seek sanity in philosophy, simply to have some idea of what is real. For people who wish to share their lives and to have others share their lives with them - the basis motivation of chaplains, priestesses, and shamans – Martin Buber is an excellent person from whom to gain wisdom.
Buber divides relationships into two kinds, ‘I-It’ and ‘I-Thou’. ‘I-It’ relationships are those in which we meet the Other as separate from us. ‘I-Thou’ relationships are those in which we meet the Other as we would meet ourselves, or Deity. This kind of meeting isn’t limited to people and gods but is a way to be in relationship with all existence. I’ve found it reassuring to know that Buber spoke of moments of I-Thou meeting rather than expecting a sustained intensity of openness.
The relation to the Thou is immediate.
Between I and Thou there is no purpose, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself changes, since it plunges from dream into appearance.
All means are impediment. Only where all means fall to pieces, encounter happens.
I try to bear this in mind and in heart when I meet with patients. It’s easy to enter into the paradigm of the institution, where I am important to the institution – they can say they’re fulfilling their policy of meeting patients spiritual needs; of the special status within religion as a Pagan and as a chaplain; of the desires and needs that the patient may have for us – having successfully and often to their own surprise manifested a specialist they can (quite properly) assert their difference. But beyond all this is a person who desperately needs to meet in a satisfying way with another person. (Both chaplain and patient, by the way, rather than just the patient.) The quality of meeting is vital.
When the dialogue is fulfilled in its being between partners who have turned to one another in truth, who are themselves without reserve and are free of semblance, there is brought into being a memorable fruitfulness. At such times the word rises in a substantial way between men who have been seized in their elemental togetherness. The interhuman opens out what otherwise remains unopened.
Buber offers a way into a manner of being that many Pagans say they long for, of oneness, both with humans and the non-human. The meeting can be achieved in a momentary glance between strangers or in simply being engrossed by a mineral.
On a gloomy morning I walked upon the highway, saw a piece of mica lying, lifted it up and looked at it for a long time; the day was no longer gloomy, so much light was caught in the stone. And suddenly, as I raised my eyes from it, I realized that while I looked I had not been conscious of ‘object’ and ‘subject’; in my looking I had tasted unity.
Confusion, anxiety, fear, wanting to dominate and please at the same time, get in the way of meeting. So do sympathy, empathy, technique of any kind, feelings of expertise and wisdom. Paradoxically, the desire for a certain quality of meeting can also get in the way of being aware of the Other in a truthful, open manner and it is this openness that heals us when we meet it, offer it, receive it. We have to be open to the idea of being seen by the patient, a far greater challenge than offering to help them. If we talk in terms of the soul then we can be open to the concept of moments of soul meeting, beyond individual personality and history. Here I am, there you are, we are here, now. Particularly at times of crisis just being willing to offer that (in a genuine, grounded, non-psychobabble or pseudo-spritual manner) can be enough.
Buber M (1965) The Knowledge of Man. New York: Harper and Row
Buber M (1971) I and Thou. UK: Simon & Schuster; 1st Touchstone Edition