An I-Thou Moment
She walked down the street with a somewhat shuffling gait, shoulders hunched with the weight of life’s challenges, and holding a cigarette by her side, from which she took an occasional puff. Her hair hung long, a bit below her shoulder blades. She wore a jumper made of a predominantly orange/pink fabric – stripes with a floral pattern in them – over a pink floral print blouse whose pattern clashed with the jumper fabric. She looked about 50 years old and as if life had not been good to her.
It was a hot day in October, in the 80s, and she was walking towards her town’s downtown stores, perhaps in search of a bit of cool in an air conditioned building. Most people on seeing her would have walked right by, averting their eyes to avoid a request for “spare change.” She looked like a resident of a cheap apartment or a local half-way house.
At the corner, a younger woman was waiting to cross the street. She wore tan shorts and a white tank top over a purple cami. Her hair was also long, but well brushed and pulled into a pony tail for comfort in the heat. She had a canvas shoulder bag and had obviously been shopping for groceries that day.
As the older woman approached the corner, the younger woman smiled at her and greeted her. The older woman’s reaction was subtle but stunning. Her shoulders straightened. She raised her head. The smile that was on her face was not visible from behind, but it was obvious that her whole body was smiling in return. She had been recognized and honored as a person. It made all the difference.
Observing this encounter from the confines of my car, I was reminded of Martin Buber’s insight that there are two ways of interacting with the “other.” We can interact in the realm of I-It or I-Thou. The I-It interaction does not recognize the other as an equal or even as human. The I-Thou recognizes the other individual as another human being, a child of God, worthy of respect and love. This kind of encounter (I-Thou) makes the difference between a satisfying, life-giving interchange and the kind of sterile, unfulfilling, relationship in which people mistreat or even exploit the other.
As Christians, we are called to meet people, the world and the eternal in I-Thou mode. It is in these encounters that the good news of our Lord will be preached wordlessly but most effectively.