Recently, while ending a course on a Survey of Jewish Philosophy, I asked the class the question of if one can have an authentic I-Thou experience over the internet. Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian, posited that there are 2 types of interactions: I-It and I-Thou. Those interactions where we treat the other individual as a functionary, so to speak. And those interactions in which we truly interact with that individual as their true selves–in which our entirety is entirely connected to the other’s entirety. Such moments are rare–and even in holy relationships, do not always exist. But these moments are a goal to strive for within relationship–within any relationship. To treat another person as Thou (or You, which is really a better translation) is an ideal for which every interaction should strive. But, because we are human, not every interaction gets there.
But back to the question as to if such moments can exist online. To which my answer is a resounding yes. I live my life in a place where most of my closest friends live far away. I have chosen a career where this is necessarily the case. And so, there are times, especially those times when I need friends the most, that I’ve only been able to reach out online. And the support, the listening, the friendship, the interaction has been nothing less than authentic and perfect. Heschel’s idea of radical amazement at play–moments in which it is only because of technology that I’ve been able to get the support I’ve needed. Or moments in which my favorite people in the world have been able to give me the virtual hug I needed, even if we aren’t in physical proximity. Or moments in which a treasured friend has given me the laugh I needed.
But it goes beyond that. I have friends that I have never met in person. Really close friends. Or others whom I met online and developed deep, real, true connections. In some ways, it is because of social networking that I’ve been able to create such I-Thou moments. Because these are people with whom I would never have otherwise interacted. Whose stories I’ve heard–with whom I’ve shared my own stories. With whom we’ve all shared triumphs and sorrows in a profound way. In relationships that were only possible because of this technology that we are all a part of.
And there are moments of engagement and relationship that exist also with people I know that are facilitated because of social networking. People who reach out in a time of need through a message or an email because they aren’t at a moment at which they are ready to talk in person or by voice. Or moments in which I was able to reach out because I learned about something going on because of a facebook post or a tweet. It is through social networking that our culture sometimes talks about moments that matter. It can be through social networking that we can respond to such moments in meaningful ways. Some of my most powerful conversations have happened via facebook message.
Back to Buber, what he describes as I-Thou moments, I define in part as real conversation. Conversation in which both parties are understood as whole selves. In which neither party really thinks about who the other is, but knows that the other is just there. Sometimes, these conversations happen in person. Sometimes, they happen online. In Buber’s words:
When I confront a human being as my You and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, limited by other He’s and She’s, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.
When we experience another as a whole entity–when we see them not as a series of parts but as a being–we encounter them in a way that allows the relationship to be transcendent.
I do not believe that facebook merely allows for such moments–I believe that it can enable them. That sometimes, social networking is the only way that such moments can occur. Because of distance. Because we’re not ready to talk in person. Because the other is there when we need the other to be there.
Franz Rosenzweig, contemporary of Buber and another great Jewish mind, spoke of speech-thought. Those moments of conversation with another during which we realize truths that we did not realize before. Those moments of interaction during which we come to an insight that we didn’t know we had. During which we learn something new, even if it’s based on information we already had. For me, the experience of social media is full of those moments.
So, yes. You can have an iThou moment. You can have a moment of speech thought through text messages. Certainly, these technologies can be used in negative ways. But they can also be the vehicle for the most honest communication we can have.
I know this is true. I have met some of my best friends over the internet. I have had some of my best moments with friends when we are thousands of miles apart.
Sometimes, it is through technology that we find the best moments.