Sunday, June 16, 2019

You Had Me At Thou

PHOTO: Oak tree in Park Santiago: Santa Ana, CA

Earlier this week, I took a photo of this oak tree during my walk in our neighborhood park, Park Santiago. Perhaps it's because I've walked past it countless times during the past 25 years that I feel its distinctive personality. And that we (the tree and I) have a relationship. And I'll even go so far to say that I love this tree.

In Chapter 3 of her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell cites philosopher Martin Buber who in 1923 published a book titled I and Thou. According to Buber, when we view a person or thing from an "I-IT" point of view, a hierarchy is established where "I" reigns over "IT" and views "IT" as something to use for "I's" gain. When we view a person or thing from an "I-THOU" perspective, there is no hierarchy. There is mutual respect and expectation that "I" will care for "THOU" and vice versa.

The I-IT perspective in terms of a human's relationship with a tree reminds me of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The boy in the story is "I" and the tree is "IT." And though the tree has done nothing to hurt the boy, the boy views the tree not as an entity to care for but an IT to use, abuse, appropriate, and ultimately destroy.

When I'm not walking or running in my park, I'm at one of my gyms to get a good workout. I'm particularly fond of a group exercise class called "Power Pump," where for one hour the participants lift weights to music, facilitated by an instructor. Even though it's a friendly atmosphere, none of us are actual friends. We hardly know each other's names.

We all use barbells that we load up with weighted plates on each side. The plates are secured by bar clips. If the clips are not on properly, it could be dangerous because in the middle of a lift, a plate could drop and injuries could happen.

There was a time during a Power Pump class when I accidentally forgot to put a clip on one side of my bar. Another classmate saw this and immediately came to me with an extra clip and put it on my bar. We weren't friends. None of us were. But we were makeshift neighbors in a makeshift 1-hour community, with an unspoken understanding that we were in this class together and we'd get out of it together.

In Chapter 5 of her book, Odell describes the ecology of such interactions as contingent on two factors. The first factor is proximity. One reason the classmate was able to help me was because she was near me. Says Odell: "... those who help you will likely not be your Twitter followers, they will be your neighbors." The second factor is the desire to care. And in light of Buber's ideas, to care would mean for the classmate to have viewed the stranger (me!) not as IT, but THOU.

Who exactly are my Twitter/Instagram/Facebook followers? And who am I to them? What can we be to one another when we are strangers and we are not neighbors? These are challenging questions as we ponder who we are in our parks, homes, neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, nation, globe, and universe.

As long as I allow my attention to be invested in courting my next Twitter follower, the more my ego keeps me idling in the I-IT lane. A lane where I'm foolishly convinced that I have bigger fish to fry than to get involved with "little" things like caring for a neighbor. A lane with little patience for sentimentality let alone mutual respect for a majestic oak.

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