The Distraction of It
On a chance afternoon walk in late May, I had occasion to witness an incident that instantly established in my mind the connection between Martin Buber’s world view and the cause of morbid obesity. Let me give a little background.
Martin Buber posits two modes in which human beings can engage with the world. The first mode is the I-It relationship. In such a relationship, a human acts upon what the human perceives to be an object in the world. The engagement results in the human’s experience of the object’s qualities and quantities, with the “I” able to observe, measure, analyze, or use the “It.” The object is separate from the human and the human is fully conscious of this. The “I” would not set a stack of logs on fire if the “I” thought it was going to burn up with it.
The second mode, the I-Thou relationship, occurs when the human encounters what it perceives to be another “I.” Neither “I” is mistaken for an “It.” Rather, each “I” immediately perceives the other to be an agent in which all the forces of the universe have coalesced. What’s more, it perceives those forces as being directed exclusively on itself. This fully engages each “I,” not only in receiving those universal forces, but in returning the universal forces the opposing “I” perceives it to have. Mutual all-absorbing engagement lasts for the duration of the encounter and transforms both. The notion that one party could manipulate or use the other does not arise. Setting fire to the “Thou” would have immediate and dire consequences for the “I” and is unthinkable.
Let me return to the momentous incident that led me to associate morbid obesity with Buberism in the first place. Perhaps Buberianism is the better coinage, although that sounds an awful lot like barbarianism. Let’s leave that for another day and hotfoot it to the source of my association.
On winding up one of my afternoon walks around the city of Munich, I descended the steps at Stachus, a large square in the center of Munich, to the spacious underground pedestrian zone. My objective was to pass under the rather busy street, impeded by nothing but stale air and the view of glitzy shops, to ascend opposite by the old botanical gardens and continue on my way home. On quitting the bright daylight for the relative dimness of the underground passage, I passed a very bulky woman on my right who stood facing the wall engrossed in reading a poster announcing some such event as a visiting circus or an exciting new surfing offer from Vodaphone. Without much thought, I continued on my way, but as I did her hand moved up to her head like an automaton’s, slowly, smoothly, dispassionately. Although curious, I walked a dozen steps further until it was safe to turn and observe without disturbing her. And that I did.
The woman hadn’t moved. She stood stock-still facing the wall, quite close to the wall, staring fixedly at the poster. And sure enough, as I watched, without taking her eyes from the poster, her hand rose again to her head. No, she was not telephoning, one of two possibilities that had crossed my mind. The other possibility, with all its ominous implications, was substantiated as fact: she was eating. As she stood engrossed in reading a poster in the rather seedy underground passage at Stachus, she worked on her sandwich. There could be no mistake: she had bought herself a hefty sandwich somewhere else and chosen to eat it directly in front of that underground poster. That was where, apparently, she could enjoy it most.
Why pick that spot? That was clear to me. It was there, in that most unappetizing of places, where she could most perfectly distract her attention from the fact that she was yet again feeding her exceedingly obese body. This woman was, tragically, both ill and the cause of her disease. As addict, her life was a series of daily attempts to seek moments and spots where she could indulge her addiction. Since she was victim as well, the addict had to choose spots that obscured conscious acknowledgement of what she was doing. Her size testified to her success: she regularly found those moments, those spots, those distractions during which she could covertly indulge. The poster on the wall at the foot of the steps of the Stachus underground passage was one such spot. I have no doubt the victim suffered greatly over time with no idea why.
What this glimpse of pedestrian misery revealed to me was that the woman had successfully debased her I-Thou encounter with her body into an I-It experience.
During the pandemic, we have all been cruelly limited in our activities. My preferred form of exercising – swimming – was cut off for five months. To compensate for a drop to nearly zero in aerobic exercise since I do not jog, I began to do jumping jacks. Regardless, my body began to change. Certain yoga exercises caused unaccustomed squeezing sensations in the spots where you bend for ploughs and forward bends. That frightened and upset me. No doubt, fat was accumulating in those spots as a result of my inactivity. I immediately changed two eating habits that I knew were not quite right: something had to be done, best start with the obvious. I experienced those changes not as sacrifice, but as necessity. With the restraint, I gained an unlooked-for confidence, coming from my insentient body, that it trusted me to help it in times of need, that I was a beneficent part of its processes, having perhaps a highly ignorant perspective of its workings but able to exercise my executive power over that magnificent, intricate instrument to make the right decisions. This strange, new sense that my body trusted me was an immense reward. The entire process involved, obviously, just me, but there were definitely two components engaged. In other words, I felt clearly, but strangely, and intimately, engaged in an I-Thou relationship with my body. And I had listened. And I had engaged.
Responding appropriately within such a relationship may not be at all extraordinary. What does strike me as extraordinary is when people refuse to. We do dwell in our bodies. How our bodies function affects how we feel, think, embrace the world, even what we believe to be true. Yet, there are those of us who are capable of persistently ignoring this most fundamental of relationships to the point of death. It is an uncomfortable way to go.
In light of Buberianism, my conclusion is that those people have turned their bodies into Its. It’s something only human beings can do. No rabbit in the field alienates itself from its body, nor can it decide to focus on anything other than its immediate surroundings as part of its own body: sound, wind, scent, light, space, grass, shelter. The rabbit has no capacity to choose, does not perceive a choice, has nothing but an absolute to obey, and no time to maneuver in. Time does not exist for the rabbit. A sense of time could only exist if the rabbit were aware of distance and separation between itself and the world, which it is not. Dumb creature though it may be, a rabbit’s relationship to the world is I-Thou. The rabbit is in the world as it was in the womb. Whatever happens out there has as immediate an effect on it as its heartbeat. Ask the rabbit if you could and you will learn: the world is rabbit, the rabbit is world.
While focus is critical to survival for all other creatures, we humans practice distraction with consummate refinement. Our ultimate objective is to distract ourselves from some one of our behaviors we know to be an aberration, otherwise no distraction would be necessary. Knowing we have a choice, we also know we intend to make the wrong choice. What’s more, we know we’ve been making that wrong choice repeatedly and intend to continue doing so and don’t want to be bothered by any thoughts that perhaps our perversity is speeding us towards sickness, perhaps death.
How many people have I seen smoking what looks to be their most enjoyable cigarette of the day staring rapt into a shop window? How many of us find ourselves, just when we are about to pass another Thou, suddenly preoccupied with a loose button, the keys in our pockets, the dog at our sides, a plane flying by, or maybe just the sky? Certainly, that passer-by has no intention of falling into our arms and wishing us good day as our fellow Thou if we but accord it the requisite attention, but we seem to think that might happen and do what we can to avoid precipitating that eventuality. Rather than mastering distraction, this ready preoccupation betrays that we know exactly what we are approaching. We do not consult our cell phones with long faces when we find ourselves about to pass a bulldog.
A heat map would be able to determine all the Thou’s out there in proximity to each other by the absence of heat at those junctures, the spots where we pay the least attention, diverting our eyes to watches, phones, underground billboards, in preference to the all-powerful passer-by. Amusing though this may seem, it can have serious consequences.
Two weeks ago, my friend and I were walking past the entrance to an underground parking garage on a quiet neighborhood street when a car came into view headed straight for the garage entrance. Although driving slowly, the driver didn’t let up for a moment to allow us to pass the entrance first. In fact, he would have run us down as he cruised into his turn if we hadn’t jumped out of the way, which we did. As the car turned, we were presented with the passenger side where sat, not three feet from where we now stood, a woman who scowled straight past us into the nasty world beyond. Evidently she had steeled herself for the grizzly outcome of her husband’s desperate maneuver to get the car past the impediments, messy impediments, and into that underground garage. It didn’t register on her face for a moment that two human beings stood just outside her window glass.
There is no mistaking: in that instance we were treated as Its. But it’s not surprising and it’s not horrifying, unless it ends, as it could have, in catastrophe, which it often does. We all treat the Thous in the world as Its at one time or another. It testifies to a degree of sophistication in being able to do so. How else could we keep our cool when faced with world-class wits and know-it-alls at neighborhood events?
The danger arises when we treat ourselves as Its as well.
I am aware that, as with all topics I attempt to examine, I do not understand this in full. People have unendingly varying relationships to their bodies. Minds are of unendingly various qualities and characteristics and most likely engage in an unending a variety of I-Thou relationships, something I don’t think Buber mentions. For example, it would be expected that paralytics and victims of multiple sclerosis regard their bodies as either an It or a tyrant, rather than a Thou. Such a change in relationship emerges for us all as we age. Should we manage to maintain any participatory status during that last debate, we can’t fail to notice the ever-diminishing significance of our repartees.
In this respect, time itself is experienced as transformation. Activities, like aerobic exercise, have a transformative effect. Singular life, by which I mean an I-Thou relationship between self and body, should be transformative as well. It is solely within this ambience that the “I” can turn to account its unique capacity of observer of consciousness to penetrate to any degree the phenomenon and significance of that consciousness. For what that’s worth, of course. But in choosing to do so, we have the chance to live as courageously as the rabbit in the field engaged in the I-Thou world. Or we can choose to live out our lives as a series of I-It experiences if that’s all we believe our poor vessel can manage on such a stormy voyage. The danger for us humans, unlike the rabbit, is both are options.