Introduction — How the Coffee Became Cold
We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time, years even. When you get that message asking to meet and catch up, there is a joy, an excitement; there is a hope for rekindled interaction and the ability to piece together time apart and share of the stories that have brought you to this season of life.
When my friend asked to meet for coffee, that hope was the assumption that tinted my understanding of what was happening.
I was wrong.
Apparently, my friend had a contact list of who they needed to try to sell a product to and, even though it had been a while since we talked, I was an opportune buyer if they could simply reestablish the connection. They needed something and I was a potential character from whom they could get it.
So we met for coffee.
After some cordial yet quick greetings, they made the ask. I honestly don’t remember many of the details — just that they found this organization with this product line and it changed their life. Apparently, it could change my life, too, albeit for a consistent monthly price.
I could feel what was happening. I wasn’t hurt, just disappointed. I kept checking the time wondering how long this flop of a reconnecting relationship was going to last. The opportunity that had me initially excited had long since evaporated and I was slightly annoyed that my time could have been used elsewhere.
We left even more disconnected than when we arrived. As politely as possible, I expressed that I wasn’t interested, but that I’d love to get together again soon. I then returned home with only a half cup of coffee, now cold.
I realized that the previous relationship wasn’t actually a reality during that meeting — for I was not me to them, I was a potential sale.
You could say that my friend no longer viewed me as a fellow subject, but as a piece of their puzzle; as an opportunity. I was someone, even something, that would help them fulfill a quota. I sensed a sort of usury unfolding in which I was the victim — no part of that meeting was about us, it was simply about them and how I might function to fulfill their desires and needs even if it was at my (literal) expense.
I was not a subject, but an object.
Unfortunately, this is not just symptomatic of multi-level marketing meetings.
This is a problem that exudes itself in many interactions.
And the effects can be devastating.
Part One — Two Ways to Interact With the World
There is a philosopher named Martin Buber from Germany with a theory on the nature of human interaction. Buber claims that when it comes to how you view & interact with the world, there are two options.
You either view the other as an object or a subject.
He called the philosophy “I & Thou” (or, in modern speech, “I & You”).
You have your existence and then you have how your existence engages in relationship with the existence of others around you.
When it comes to your intrapersonal interaction, you see yourself and recognize that you are a subject — you are an “I”. You have depth and emotions and intentions and feelings and thoughts and dreams and shortcomings. We see through our eyes with an understanding of our identity in all of its dimensions and fullness. We have the ability to look at ourselves and recognize the totality of our being.
As humans, that’s where we start.
The question is — how does your “I”, your ‘self’, relate to everything else?
Well, here are Buber’s two options.
“I & It” — Object
First, you can look at yourself and say “I”, but then you look at another and say, “It”.
Other beings and creatures are things to be experienced and used. They are pieces in your life that exist to be utilized and manipulated for yourself. When you engage with them, there is no depth of dimension; they are simply characters in your story that you use, receive, & consume from to fulfill whatever agenda you might have.
Others are objects.
Two-dimensional things that exist for your benefit.
This perspective can be compared to playing a first-person videogame — you are the character from which you see the rest of the world and everything else is the equivalent to pieces of the game that fulfills the narrative. Essentially, you are the center of the world and all else exists around you. It would be what we call ‘ego-centrism’.
This is the first option for how you relate to the world.
But then, there is another, more holistic option.
“I & Thou” — Subject
Second, you look at yourself and say “I”, but then you look at another and say “Thou” (or “You” for a more modern dialect).
Essentially, you look at another being and view them the same way you view yourself. You assume that just as you have your lens and depth and dimensionality to your being…so do they.
They aren’t an object, but a subject.
Not something to be manipulated and used, but interacted with.
A human full of life, just like yourself, with hopes and dreams and goals. They, too, have vulnerabilities and shortcomings and feelings. They have a history and an existence that parallels your own.
The ancient Stoics called this a cosmopolitan view of the world — that you exist as a citizen of the common world of which you are one part.
You are an “I”.
And they are a “You”, not an “It”.
Part Two — Which Posture Will You Use?
While it is easy to notice this dichotomy with things like multi-level marketing schemes or even in how Christians tend to approach evangelism, we may have to do the interior work of paying attention to our propensity to exist with others in an “I-It” sort of way.
I am often asked to officiate weddings and one of the scariest moments that happens way more frequently than I am comfortable with is when a bride or groom, in response to being asked why they want to get married, expresses something along the lines of, “I really just want to get married. I’ve been looking forward to that moment for years and I finally have the opportunity!”
Now, this could be just an emphatic utterance to an exciting event — but there is something here that is reflective of our culture.
Because the insinuation is that it might not matter who the spouse is, only that they finally will have a spouse. That they’ve strongly desired that wedding ceremony moment because of how it would, presumably, feel and look and sound. The spouse and the wedding ceremony are simply the object of their desire.
How many marriages or romantic relationships exist where there are two people, but each person has the other simply to fulfill something for themselves?
We gravitate to using others when we need something and we believe we can get it from them.
They become an object to satisfy our wants.
I’ve even had engaged couples express that they really just want to have wedding pictures in their home — and that’s the only reason they are having a wedding.
But it also happens through parents who, whether because of cultural fascination or some personal void, are trying to get pregnant because they would really just love to have an ultrasound picture of a pregnancy to put on their Instagram because they’ve always thought it would be fun.
Not quite a good reason to put yourself through sleepless nights.
And not a healthy motivation for bringing a human being into the world.
Or we could explore parents who want children so that they can have them be good at sports or how folks look for friends just because they are lonely as opposed to a genuine interest in building authentic community that will impact the social landscape of their place.
We do this all the time.
While we are driving, while we are eating, and while we are interacting on social media. There are a plethora of instances where we pursue something and it just so happens that another human being could be utilized to fulfill our goal.
Maybe, just maybe, we need to begin screening our interactions with the question:
Is that other human being a subject or are they an object?
How do you approach the various beings that make up the world around you?
Is the world simply full of characters in your story?
Or is the world full of characters together in a common story?
Are you the only person that matters?
Or are we interdependent — a common village woven together like a mutualistic web?
What would it look like to sit down for coffee simply because we want to have a vested interest in the other? Could it be that a healthy relationship is worth more than ranking up in the organization for which you are selling? Could it be that your ‘business’ would be more successful if you played the long game of being genuinely connected to people with genuine love? Could it be that this sort of connection with this sort of posture could provide more good for yourself and the world than a sales pitch?
We will either be focused inward or outward. That is the posture we have to decide. We will either need something from that human being and use them accordingly or we will join that human being, walking with them, not to pull them into our small schemes, but to further the larger scheme of our shared humanity.
We will either be ego-centric or we will transcend ourselves for the good of the whole, including us.
Part Three — Why This Perspective Matters
Here is the challenge of this philosophy — it compels us into an empathic relationship to every single piece of existence where we transcend our singular lens of myopic self-centeredness and become ‘world-centric’ as opposed to ‘ego-centric.’
If the world is not an object that exists purely for our gain, then we are not at the center. And if the world is full of subjects with depth and intentionality — people who are sojourning through the world in the same way you are — it ought to change how we relate and interact with all of those fellow subjects.
Competition becomes collaboration.
Manipulation becomes mutualism.
Seeking advantage of the other becomes seeking healing for all of us congruently.
When you see the world as you see yourself — when you love the other in the same way you love yourself — you enter into the biological, psychological, and sociological reality that we are more connected than we may have previously imagined. We see that our health and goodness and vitality is not something we can use others to get, but will unfold in harmony with their health and goodness and vitality.
Our invitation to selflessness is not because of some pious morality, but because the smallest denomination of health is the health of a place and all its creatures together.
Living this out could change everything about our human experience.
Psychologically, we see this with George Herbert Mead’s social psychology theory of “The Social Self” in which he describes the inescapable reality that your identity is intrinsically shaped by the social sphere around you. The world is like a mirror where your understanding and the manifestation of your ‘self’ is a reflection of all the other selves surrounding you. Essentially, you don’t exist on an island, rather you live in an entangled web of interconnection with everything else.
Or we could look at the human genome project and our anthropological heritage or the mystical reality of argon atoms or the biological component of mirror neurons and its impact on our seemingly natural human capacity for empathy. It seems that every field of thought has pointed to this reality that we are inextricably connected.
We are predisposed to see, feel, and experience the world in conjunction with our fellow sojourners.
Learning, again, from the Stoics — they claimed the world exists as an “oikeiosis,” or, household — the perception that all things are part of one’s own self while, at the same time, one’s own self is part of the world at large. We are like one giant family, one entangled and interconnected web of a global village and, therefore, how you treat your inner circles ought to translate into the posture with which you treat even the very outermost circles of life in the world.
Seeing the world as “subjects” — as a ‘thou’ instead of an ‘it’ — forces us to transcend ourselves for the good of the whole in a way that embodies a pure, innate wholeness that we seem to be naturally meant to exist within.
Your perspective, then, will create a particular kind of world.
The question is, “Which posture will I have and which world will it create?”
A world of subjects?
Or a world of objects?
Part Four — Let’s Begin Every Interaction With, “You.”
Can you imagine if we actually took this seriously? Because as soon as you begin to navigate your existence in this way, certain things become impossible:
Honestly, any form of oppression or destruction or unhealth in a relationship or in the world becomes a bit difficult to do when you start from a place of mutuality and love and empathy in seeking to take on the interests of everyone and not just yourself.
Seriously, what if every family and relationship and community made this a priority? How different would the world look?
When you view the world as “subject”, what sincerely becomes impossible is just plain old selfishness. When we aren’t trying to use one another for our own gain, the world will function in a particular way — one that seems a bit different from our current state of reality.
We’ve taken our cue from the modern conundrum of advertising. We gladly put ourselves at the disposal of those who offer convenience and comfort, especially when it is on sale! Have we become a world of sales-people? If so, we will only exist as objects to another’s agenda.
The results will be a bit like what we are noticing in the world we so often complain about.
Maybe, then, this posture could be our answer — one that will take a long time to surface, but will create a different kind of world.
If we refuse to tell that narrative, we might actually find what we are looking for — and all of us will find it together.
A world of subjects will create one kind of experience.
A world of objects will create the opposite.
May you, the next time you parent or drive or live out your marriage or consume some product or sit down for coffee with a long lost friend, not sell something.
May you, in every moment, not use others to fulfill your wants and make them the object of your actual desire.
May you avoid the easy tendency to make them an objectified “it.”
And may you, instead, begin by saying, “You.”
It might just be the most important decision you can make every single day.