Responding to the Call of the Other

For a while, I rode the city transit bus to the university. One day, I was sitting next to an empty seat on the bus, and reading a chapter out of my physics textbook. A man got on the bus, and was looking for a seat. I shifted my legs onto the seat next to me, and buried myself in the book. The man found another seat, and I enjoyed sitting next to an empty seat for the rest of the trip.

A few days later, I got onto the bus, and a kind man who was reading a book met my eyes, shifted over a little, and invited me to sit.

When I was sitting next to an empty seat, I saw others as a nuisance. I was worried that if the man on the bus sat next to me, it would make me less comfortable. I saw him as a hindrance to my own desires, because I saw my desires as more important than his. In essence, I saw others as objects that could either help or hinder me in the pursuit of my own desires.

The kind man who invited me to sit with him saw others as people, with needs, hopes, and concerns just as real as his own.

Even though we were both sitting on the bus, reading a book, and doing exactly the same thing, we saw people around us in a fundamentally different way.

I think there are two ways that we can relate with others. I remember in boy scouts, I had a senior patrol leader who was very good at organizing campouts, and very good at getting other scouts to get merit badges. However, we all felt as though we were just check marks on his good record … we were objects to be manipulated, in order to serve his purposes. Although he carefully masked it in altruistic rhetoric and motivating speeches, we felt a little as though he was trying to impress us and make a good name for himself, and he needed our cooperation to do it.

I had another senior patrol leader who was different. He wasn’t as good at organizing. He wasn’t as good at motivating, nor as articulate as the old senior patrol leader. However, we felt as though he was there for us, rather than us there for him. He saw us as people, rather than objects, and we loved him for it. We loved him because he wasn’t looking for love… he was simply loving us.

The philosopher Martin Buber described two different fundamental relationships that we can have with others. He called one type of relationship the I-It relationship. We relate in an I-It relationship when we see others as either tools or hindrances to our own needs and desires. We see them as objects.

The other type of relationship Buber described is the I-Thou relationship. Jeffrey Reber, a professor of psychology at BYU, explained what Buber means by this. He said, “The I-Thou relation happens when there is a direct, unmediated meeting with another being, not as an object or a thing to be experienced, used, and explained, but as a Thou, a You, to be met, responded to, and shared with.” When we relate with others in an I-Thou relation, we see their needs, hopes, and fears as just as legitimate as ours.

According to the Arbinger Institute, Martin Buber “argued that we are always, in every moment, being either I-Thou or I-It—seeing others as people or seeing them as objects.” Any action can be done from either of one of two ways of being. If you do something while being I-Thou, that action will have an entirely different flavor than when you do it while being I-It, and vice versa. Someone who is very considerate may, on the surface, be doing nothing different than someone who is merely being cloy or being a pleaser. However, the first person is being I-Thou, and the second person is being I-It.

The philosopher Terry Warner said, “We are constantly receiving signals from others that reveal something of their needs and hopes and fears… We are called upon by others’ unspoken requests, expressed in their faces and gestures and voices, to treat them with consideration and respect.”

This strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. Do you remember the time when you felt as though you should take out the trash for a family member? Do you remember the time when you saw someone struggling to carry a heavy box, and you felt as though you should help them? Do you remember when you thought you should slow down so that someone would be able to cross at the crosswalk? I do. I’ve had all of these experiences, and tons more.

But we don’t always do what we feel we should. We don’t always share cookies with our roommates. We don’t always volunteer to spend time at the nursing home. We don’t always wash our dishes so that our roommates can enjoy a clean kitchen. To be human means that we have a moral sense of what we should do for others, and also the ability to violate our moral sense.

I would like to tell the story recounted by Terry Warner in his article, “Who We Are.”

Marty was lying in bed, wrapped in the comfort of a deep sleep. He was and still is a young, ambitious businessman concerned about his career ladder and preoccupied most of the time with corporate assignments. As he slept, the four-month-old baby began to cry in the nursery just off the master bedroom. Marty roused, lifted his head, and looked at the clock. 2:30. His wife, Carolyn, lying next to him in her curlers and sleeping mask, wasn’t stirring.

At that moment, I had a fleeting feeling, a feeling that if I got up quickly I might be able to see what was wrong before my wife would have to wake up. I don’t think it was even a thought because it went too fast for me to say it out in my mind. It was a feeling that this was something I really ought to do.

But I didn’t do it. I didn’t go right back to sleep either. It bugged me that my wife wasn’t waking up. I kept thinking it was her job. She has her work and I have mine. Mine starts early. She can sleep in. Besides, I was exhausted. Besides that, I never really know how to handle the baby. Maybe she was lying there waiting for me to get up. Why did I have to feel guilty when I’m only trying to get some sleep so I can do well on the job? She was the one who wanted to have this kid in the first place.

In this story, we have a remarkable example of a truth that lies at the heart of all relationships. When Marty first thought to help his wife, he was simply thinking of her needs. He saw her as a person among persons. He was relating with her in an I-Thou relation.

However, when Marty violated his moral sense of what he should do for his wife, the way he saw his wife changed. He began to see her as a nuisance, as a person who would pretend to sleep in order to get out of helping. He began to rehearse in his mind all the reasons his needs trumped hers. He was relating with her in an I-It relation. Why? Because seeing her this way justified his refusal to do what he felt he should do for her.

We often think of anger, irritation, and frustration as things that happen to us, beyond our control. We all have said something to the extent of, “he bugs me,” or “she made me mad.” Marty’s experience provides a perfect counter-example: What was the only thing that happened between the time that Marty saw his wife as a person with needs, hopes, and fears as real as his own, and the moment in which he was irritated, frustrated, and perhaps even angry with her? It was his choice to neglect the feeling he had to help her. It was nothing that she did… she was asleep the whole time!

When we violate our sense of what is right, the entire way that we see other people changes. We need to convince ourselves that we are right in mistreating others by accusing others of wrongdoings towards us. We begin to see them as objects, rather than persons among persons, because only then can we be right in mistreating them. We relate with them in an I-It relationship in order to mask the face of the Other—the Thou that calls upon us for respect—that we are ignoring.

Marty’s wife probably wasn’t lazy or disrespectful. She was probably just as diligent and hardworking as Marty was.

Simply put, it is only when we have done wrong that we feel the need to accuse others.

Living in Brigham Young University housing, one of the policies was that our apartment would be checked by the landlord to make sure it was kept clean. Each person living in the apartment had a particular cleaning task assigned, for which they would be responsible. I remember a time when, although I had done my chores meticulously, my roommate had not even started his chores, which included the kitchen. The landlord was scheduled to arrive within half an hour, and my roommate was still preparing for the day.

As I was about to leave the apartment to head to class, the thought crossed my mind that I should take out the trash for my roommate on my way out, so that he wouldn’t have to. I didn’t do it. All the way to my class that morning, I kept rehearsing to myself all the reasons why my roommate didn’t deserve my help. He slept in. He was annoying. He created most of the mess that I cleaned up earlier. He didn’t have nearly as important a class schedule as mine. In fact, he didn’t have nearly as high ambitions as I did. My mind rallied everything fact it could to justify my neglect of my moral sense. I became irritated, upset, and even resentful towards my roommate for putting me in a position to feel guilty for not going the extra mile to help bail him out of the consequences of his own laziness.

I no longer saw my roommate as a person among persons. I saw him instead as more than just a nuisance—in a sense, I had demonized him, made him appear less than human in order excuse myself for treating him as less than human.

My roommate was every bit as lazy as I made him out to be in my mind. But the way I saw him was a lie because I saw his faults as a reason to refuse to help him only when I needed to feel justified for neglecting the feeling I had that I should help him. Despite his flaws, his humanity still called upon me to respect him. I exaggerated my own virtue in the very moment I was anything but virtuous.

In nearly every story we find in which someone violates their moral sense, the way they saw the world and those around them changed. They no longer saw others as who they really were: they constructed new identities for their fellow human beings.

Simply put, we cannot both do wrong and see right at the same time.

This is called self-deception. Self-deception is “the act or practice of allowing oneself to believe that a false or unvalidated feeling, idea, or situation is true.” We do it all the time. Whenever we violate our moral sense, we become self-deceived. We no longer see the world as it truly is … and the only way back to reality is to respond to our moral sense.

Accusing and demonizing others is only one form of self-deception. Whenever we excuse ourselves for doing less than our best, we are engaging in an act of self-deception. This is because our moral sense tells us more than to just treat others with respect. It also tells us to do our best and to be our best in every situation in which it is right. When we don’t, we construct for ourselves a reality in which we couldn’t have done otherwise, or in which it is perfectly okay to be less than what we could be.

In short, we make excuses for our bad behavior. However, they are more than just excuses. We actually see the world differently, as if through colored lenses. Our emotions collaborate with the lie, complete our false reality with an appropriate dose of anger, irritation, arrogance, pride, discouragement, or self-disparagement.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be overwhelmed with responsibility or put the weight of the world on our own shoulders. It simply means that we should respects others as people. It simply means that, in every situation, we should do what we feel is right. We know we’ve done what is right because we’ll feel at peace about it. It is only when we don’t do what we feel is right that we feel we have to marshal evidence to convince ourselves that we’re doing good.

We all resonate with these ideas, because we’ve all experienced these stories (or variations of them) in our own lives. This is basic to human nature: To be human is to have a moral sense of what we should do for others. This is what it means to see people as persons among people, and to relate with them in an “I-Thou” relation.

To violate this moral sense of what we should do for others is to wrong others. When we wrong others, we deceive ourselves by constructing for ourselves a view of the world in which our wrongdoing seems right. To do so, we invariably relate with others in an “I-It” relation.

We are always relating with others in one of these two fundamentally different ways, and we likely switch back and forth between them frequently every day. Violating our moral sense of what we should do for others is how we move from an I-Thou relation with others to an I-It relation with others. And the way back is simple: we respond to our moral sense, and do what we feel we should do for others. We need to respond to the Call of the Other.

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3 Responses

  1. I like this example from Terry Warner. These kinds of examples surrounding self-deception are so simple yet so true to experience. Who hasn’t had experiences where they felt to do something, didn’t do it, and then later regretted it? What is the source of these experiences? Some would say it’s merely our neurobiology that is conditioned to fire in certain ways to keep us feeling too guilty because the guilt is not pleasurable. But others would say that this explication does not do justice to the experience nor to how deeply thrown into the flux of life we are. Only by insisting that reductionist accounts are inadequate can our society properly talk about how we are fundamentally moral, relational beings.

  2. I love this post. I love your experience on the bus. What a great learning experience- a tender mercy- and I’m glad you were able to recognize it.

    Satan is the ultimate blamer. And he is the ultimate self deceiver.

    Lately I have found myself blaming others in my mind. A lot. Just a few specific people. This is how I can justify my lack of charity. They clearly don’t deSERVE my charity.

    When will I ever learn that I don’t deserve the Savior’s charity either? He grants me mercy. Yet I want justice for everyone else.

    Thanks for the reminder. I love the thoughts of Terry Warner.

  3. Thank you for your comments (both here and the other article)! I really appreciate them. It’s fun to converse with someone else briefed in Arbinger’s work.

    Excellent comment. :)

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