Real Life is Meeting
by J.H. Oldham


Among the thousand questions which perplex and baffle us, is there some crucial issue which, if it were rightly understood and rightly dealt with, would mark the turning-point in our society from sickness to health? In the confusing complexity of life to-day is there one decisive point at which a change, if it were to come about, would be so fundamental as to mark off one period of history from another? That seems to me to be the question which Professor John Macmurray was asking in his recent broadcast talks on "Persons and Functions."

Persons and Functions

It would be difficult to formulate the issue more succinctly than in the illustration with which he began his talks. G. K. Chesterton was once moved to anger on seeing on a poster the advertisement of an article entitled "Should Shop-assistants Marry?" The proper question, he thought, should have been: "Should human beings capable of love and marriage consent to be shop-assistants?" It shows the extent to which our values have become distorted that, instead of the statement appearing obvious, the first reaction of most of us probably is to think of it as one of Chesterton's clever epigrams and to wonder whether there is not a catch somewhere.

What Professor Macmurray believes to be fundamentally wrong with our present society is that its underlying assumption is that people are less important than the jobs they do, whereas the true view is that men and women are essentially persons, meant to live in personal fellowship with one another, and that the services which they have to perform in society are incidental and subordinate to this personal life.

When we distinguish the personal and the functional, we do not mean that one part of our time is given to personal relations and another part spent in performing functions, nor that the life of some people is predominantly personal and that of others predominantly functional, though these statements are often to a large extent true in fact. In all human life the personal and the functional are inseparably interwoven. Nowhere does the personal find more complete expression than in the love of a wife and mother, while the care and management of a home is at the same time the most necessary of social functions. The whole of life is functional; everything that the individual does contributes in some way to the life of society. But it is possible for this functional life to be transfigured by becoming the vehicle of intercourse between persons. The function of eating, for example, may be lifted to a high spiritual level in the intercourse of the common family meal. The doing of jobs may become a means to the mutual enrichment of human beings through intelligence and love.

Everything hinges in Professor Macmurray's view on whether in our hearts, and consequently in our practice, we regard human beings as existing primarily for the building up of an efficient society and state, or whether we find the real significance of life in the mutual relations of persons, which all human activities are meant to further and enrich. For the sake of the fullness of personal life, functions must be efficiently performed, and it is in the common performance of functions that persons find opportunities of fellowship and mutual service. But the whole future of mankind turns on whether human beings are regarded as means or end.

Martin Buber's "I and Thou"

The same demand for a fundamental change in our way of looking at things -- a challenge more truly revolutionary than either Nazism or Communism -- is made in a little book by a German writer, now an exile from the country of his birth. The book was begun during the last war. A preliminary sketch was made in 1916, a first draft completed three years later, the work put into final shape in 1922 and published in the following year -- six years for the writing of a small volume of little more than a hundred pages. An English translation appeared in 1937,1 and has attracted far less attention than its importance deserves. I question whether any book has been published in the present century the message of which, if it were understood and heeded, would have such far-reaching consequences for the life of our time. That the importance of this small volume has been as yet so little perceived shows with what difficulty truth that might save us is able to penetrate the crust of our inveterate habits of thought.

The book is at once a poem and the profoundest philosophy, compressed into a hundred pages. It does not disclose its meaning on a first reading. We have to go back to it again and again, allowing it slowly to remould our thought. As this takes place, sentences which at first seemed difficult and obscure will be found to be full of profound meaning.

The Twofold Nature of Existence

The world, Buber tells us, has a twofold meaning. Man's attitude to it is dual. The two attitudes are different and uninterchangeable. To understand this twofold nature of human existence is the beginning of wisdom. This twofold attitude is expressed in the fundamental difference between our relation to persons and our relation to things or objects. That is not precisely Buber's language. He speaks of the difference between our relation to the world of "Thou" and our relation to the world of "It". But the term "Thou" has disappeared in English as a form of address to a human person, though it survives in the language of the most personal of all relations -- the language of prayer. For our present purpose Buber's meaning can sufficiently be expressed by the contrast between persons and things, provided we understand clearly that, in the sense in which the words are here used, persons are not always persons nor things always things. Persons may be, and for certain purposes must be, treated as things, as when we organize them or discipline them or care for their health of body or of mind; and even in the most personal meeting the "Thou" who addresses us and to whom we respond is continually passing over into a "He" or "She" (which in respect of the twofold attitude is the same as an "It"). We become aware, for example, of the tone of our friend's voice or of the colour of his hair or of his individual characteristics, and he no longer confronts us as a person, but has become an object among other objects. Every human person is at the same time an "It". On the other hand, both animate and inanimate nature can meet us in a personal approach -- confront us, that is to say, not as something to be experienced and used, but as entering into relation with us, making demands on us and evoking from us a full personal response of our whole being.

This distinction between two fundamental attitudes may appear at first sight difficult and abstruse. But in reality what Buber is talking about is the common stuff of our ordinary experience. If it seems difficult, it can only be because we have not been in the habit of reflecting on our experience; and partly also because, as we shall see, our experience has become distorted. Things have gained so strong a hold over us as to blunt our sensitiveness to the personal.

The World of Things

Let us look first at the world of things. I observe something, I imagine something, I feel something, I think something, I will something. These activities have all to do with "It", and taken together they seem to include the whole range of our experience. To the world of objects belongs the whole of the vast domain over which science reigns. To it belong also the spheres of industry and commerce, the tasks of the economist and statesman. All organization, all arranging and ordering have to do with things. From the mechanization of life, from the pressure of institutions, men seek an escape into the region of feeling, hoping there to find the meaning of personal life. But feelings, as the feelings of an individual, belong also to the world of "It". It might seem as though we had included the whole of life in the world of things. It is true that everything that we experience and everything that we use belong to that world. Just as the whole of life is functional, so it is embedded inextricably in a world of "It" and lived in an unbroken relation to things.

The World of Persons

Yet nothing could be farther from the truth than that man's life consists only in activities which have some thing for an object. From out of this infinite, inexhaustible world of things which he is so eager to explore, to taste, to appropriate and to bend to his purposes there may come to him unexpectedly a voice. What that voice may say to him he cannot himself control; he can only listen and respond. In relation to the world of things man is master; he observes, measures, weighs, judges, arranges, and orders. But in the encounter with another person he is no longer the sole arbiter; he does not alone control the situation. He is addressed and has to respond. The situation to which he has to respond is not created by him, but created for him. He meets the other. He has passed from his solitariness into community, where there is not one point of view, but two or more.

Things exist, events take place, in the context of space and time. Each is bounded by something else. But a person is not a thing among other things. We do not experience a person -- so far as we experience another person it is as a "He" or "She" -- but enter into relation with him. He gives himself to us; we give ourselves to him. Meeting takes place not in a fixed and stable world of unalterable law, but in the free and living present in which the world is continually born anew.

The meeting is unforeseeable. It comes unexpectedly. It is not found by seeking. We can, of course, make a date, and keep it, but that does not in itself ensure the personal meeting. The other meets us by grace; our response to the meeting is our destiny. We cannot "order" the world of personal meeting; only things can be ordered and planned.

It is through our responses to other persons that we become persons. It is others who challenge, enlighten and enrich us. There is no such thing as the isolated individual. We are persons only in our relation with other persons. How greatly this has been forgotten is evident when one picks up almost any modern work or statement on education. So strong is the humanist, individualistic tradition that the starting-point is almost always the individual child, and the question is discussed how he may rightly relate himself to other persons -- how he may become social. But in reality the relation comes first; only out of it is personality born.

Reality is the lived relation. Through sharing in the giving and receiving of mutual being the "I" becomes real. "Reality is an activity in which I share without being able to appropriate it for myself. Where there is no sharing there is no reality. Where there is appropriation by the self there is no reality." All real life is meeting.

Every day the meeting awaits us. But whether it takes place depends on our choice. Our egoism continually tempts us to evade it. We prefer to wrap ourselves in our solitariness and pursue our solitary purposes. As a protection against the meeting we build round us a wall of ideas -- a philosophy, a theology, a tradition, a point of view. Nothing can reach us that does not get through its meshes. We take refuge in an imagined world where we are safe from the disturbing challenge of the "Thou".

Not only those about us but the great ones of the past are ready to meet us. They are willing to become alive again and enter into contemporary life. But we are content too often to pile up information about them rather than allow them really to speak to us. Day by day opportunities of meeting touch us with their wings and, finding no eagerness of response, pass us by. The windows through which we might have caught glimpses of eternity remain closed, and our life narrows and hardens into death. The difference between the lonely world in which the individual in his isolation experiences and uses and the living world of relation is no new discovery. Raymond Lull understood it, when he wrote in the thirteenth century, "He who loves not lives not"; the writer of the First Epistle of St. John knew it, when he wrote, "He that loveth not, abideth in death."

The Petrifaction of Our World

In both the life of the individual and the history of the race there is a progressive increase in the extent and dominion of the world of things. The ability to experience the world and to use what it contains steadily grows. With this growing capacity in the one direction there is apt to go a decrease in man's power to enter into relation.

This is the same thing as to say that there is a diminution in the life of the spirit. For spirit lives in relation. It is not in the "I", but between the "I" and the "Thou". Spirit is the word; the act of communication. Only through entering into relation can man live in the spirit.

But is it possible, we may well ask, that our world should be freed from domination by the "It"? Is a reversal of the balance even conceivable? Is not man a hopeless captive in the prison-house of his organization? Do not the vastness and complexity of the structure of the modern state and economic activity rule out all directness and all forms of action which are alien to their own nature and laws? Is not the statesman and economist bound to deal with men, not as persons, but as functionaries?

The answer is that these structures, which have to do with the world of things, may yet, without neglect or violation of any of their proper laws, be permeated with the animating breath of spirit, The world of things is not evil, but good. It becomes evil only when the spirit has departed from it -- when it is no longer servant, but master. In a society in which men retain the power to enter into relations, the working of institutions undergoes a subtle change, because the people who work them know something of the life of the spirit. New possibilities of action present themselves to the statesman, and the risk that would have shattered a lifeless and mechanical structure may be wholly justified in a structure "over which the presence of the ‘Thou' broods".

How May We Be Saved?

And so we come at the end to the crucial question: If Macmurray and Buber -- two prophetic voices, each declaring independently a similar message -- are right, how may the fundamental change come about, which will free society from the baleful incubus of "It" and restore the healthy and life-giving intercourse of persons living in community? Buber's answer is an arresting one. It was once believed that power could be obtained over an evil spirit by addressing it by its real name. In the same way the seemingly all-powerful world of "It" which threatens to crush the spirit of man will fade into nothingness before those who know it for what it really is -- something which is separated and alienated from true life. The word "It" is a word of separation. The thing stands over against you in its separateness; you may take it, and use it, but it does not give itself to you. The word "Thou" is a word of union. When you utter it -- when you are addressed and you respond -- you are re-united with the pulsating life of the universe. For in every "Thou" that addresses us and calls us to a responsible decision, there speaks the voice of the eternal "Thou", the source of all life, the creative, living spirit of God.

The answer to our question is, then, the answer of religion. There is that in the universe which is waiting to meet us. Let us go forth to meet it. What will come from the meeting is not in our hands. If it were there would be no meeting; we should be still in the prison-house of our own self-chosen purposes in which we control and order things.

What comes out of the meeting is God's affair. In every real encounter with life and with our fellow-men we meet the living Spirit, the Creator of life. God is not to be found by leaving the world. He is not found by staying in the world. But those who in their daily living respond with their whole being to the "Thou" by whom they find themselves addressed are caught up into union with the true life of the world. "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these My brethren, even these least, ye did it unto Me." Those who meet -- who answer in responsible decision to the word addressed to them by another -- are already sharers in eternal life. They are already bound together in community. They are allied with the power of the eternal Spirit -- a power that can destroy the domination of things, overturn the proudest monuments of ambition and acquisitiveness and restore man to his true life which is realized only in community.

1. I and Thou, Martin Buber (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 2s. 6d.).


Back to Real Life is Meeting -- Contents

Home | Introduction | Biography | Berdyaev's Philosophy | Quotes
Articles & Essays | Bibliography | Discussion List | Images | Links | Search
Last revised: November 10, 2001