From a still-slight acquaintance, I learn that Martin Buber was activated by people more than ideas. My last post, which got chewed up by an impatient mistake, had a long quote from his book I and Thou, ending with the words, “All actual life is encounter”. For that is the meaning of his I-You. Where I-You is absent there is nothing but I-It, in a world stuffed with Its, in all their endless particulars. But there is no point in trying to paraphrase his insights or his meanings. I must depend on my own, and yours.
When I came across Psalm 124 recently, it was an encounter in actual life; for I came to it free of Christian and Jewish baggage; and its poetry touched something.
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,”
Now may Israel say,
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
When men rose up against us ;
Then they had swallowed us up quick,
When their wrath was kindled against us ;
Then the waters had overwhelmed us,
The stream had gone over our soul ;
Then the proud waters had gone over our soul.
Blessed be the Lord,
Who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.
Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers ;
The snare is broken, and we are escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.”
I didn’t care what was in the poet’s mind, what was happening to Israel, the nature of the attackers, what he meant by the Lord being on our side.
I read it simply as a joyous thanksgiving for having come through. It’s been a strange winter in my small valley, looking beyond to reports of irreconcilable enmities in the wider world. I shall not let myself comment on enmity unless I encounter it face to face, here and now. In the most concrete sense, my enemy is the one who wants me dead. He stands armed before me, or threatens a deadly ambush. In everyday life, we may fear many types of threat. We try to prepare ourselves for fight or flight, sometimes in the peaceful night, where there is no point. At my age I might declare old age, sickness and death as principal enemies. This exact thought drove the young Gautama to seek enlightenment. But it’s not going to turn me into a Buddhist now.
At New Year I was beset with enemies, all related to this computer, the one I’m sitting at; so placid and obedient today, but misbehaving then. Through ignorance and obstinate determination to fix it myself, I made it progressively worse till it stopped working altogether. I took it to the mender, shared my ideas of what had gone wrong. Rashid listened in silence, said “Trust me, I won’t give up till it’s fixed”, so I went away reassured. Then I kept fretting and pestering: “When will it be ready?” When I got it back, I couldn’t find vital passwords, emails, bookmarks, settings, many items of installed software.
Thus he became my enemy. I made a big fuss. He took it back, redoubled his efforts; but we saw things differently, couldn’t understand one another. I thought he was too ignorant. He thought I was too complicated, as reflected in my explanations and the contents of my hard drive. At some point I belatedly I realized that much of the vital stuff had been there all the time, but not visible. Reloading Windows from scratch had reset it to the default state, where many files are hidden from the user. Only a professional like me would want to see them, but I’m not Microsoft-trained; not actually trained at all. And he’s clearly not used to someone like me. So we both learned something, the hard way. So I took it back and he got it almost right, except for annoying messages when it was booted up. Simple matter, I thought, just open the box and disconnect the old damaged disk that I don’t use any more (which he’d reconnected just in case, for recovery of lost files). Then it wouldn’t boot up at all, no matter what I did to the BIOS. The workshop didn’t reopen till several days later. By this time we must have reached the stage of being each other’s No. 1 enemy. (I set to one side the fact, obvious from my story, that I remain my own worst enemy. That bit’s not easily changed.)
It all turned out well in the end, and across a great divide in our ways and understanding we oddly got to know one another, bonded through mutual frustrations, misunderstandings, complementary ignorance, shared emotions. I met him in the street the other day, we had no further business to transact but shook hands warmly, said “it’s good to see you!” both at the same time. It was sweet to discover you really can love your enemy, in a moment of mute purposeless intimacy.
The encounter of I-You is both commonplace and extraordinary. And after this, there is still much to say.