because it seemed too dense, too impenetrable. Starting from the work of philosophers he explores the nature of relationships. They are either I/Thou (or ‘You’ if you like, but there is an argument over how to translate the German ‘Du’) or I/It. The former is dialogue, the latter monologue.
I cannot now lay my hands on a copy of the book but it is not hard to reflect on these concepts. I/thou stands for any encounter between two people; be they lovers, intimate friends or passengers on a bus. It is obvious the relationship will be different if it is ongoing and intimate or if it is passing and casual. But what is not so obvious is that every encounter can be either nourishing or destructive. And it is either nourishing or destructive to both parties. I can build you up with my gestures or words but in so doing I also build up myself. I can put you down and crush you but in so doing I become less of a person.
It is well known that a doctor or a nurse’s ‘manner’ can be as healing as the medicine they administer. And the converse is also true. And the healer becomes a better person insofar as he or she tries to ‘meet’ the sick person and doesn’t just prescribe remedies.
To ‘encounter’ a person is to enter into their world whether for a few seconds or for a lifetime. Zacchaeus (Luke 19) wanted to see Jesus but he didn’t want to meet him. He climbed a tree and kept his distance. Jesus, however, ‘looked’ at him and that look changed his life.
Steve Biko tried to wake up his fellow South Africans in the dark days of apartheid by appealing to them to build hope together. ‘I think the central theme of black society is that it has got elements of a defeated society. People often look like they have given up the struggle. This sense of defeat is what basically we are fighting against. People must not give in to the hardship of life, people must develop hope, people must develop some form of security to be together to look at their problems and people must in this way build up their humanity.’ In a word, people must encounter one another.
Every society goes through periods of elation and periods of defeat. The World Cup says it all. But for us in Zimbabwe today we do have ‘elements of a defeated society.’ One answer is to reach out to each other in a contagious movement of encounter so that hope becomes unstoppable.
I suppose I am not alone in having a mental list of the books I have not read, the roads I have not walked and the people I have not met. Among the first is Martin Buber's (1878-1965) I and Thou, written between the world wars of the last century. I did not read it at the time I held it in my hands