It was Martin Buber who called attention to the life-giving distinction we all must make if we are to value, respect, care for and take responsibility towards, each other. From the deep wells of Hebraic experience of God and community, Buber distinguished between relating to that which is beyond ourselves as "It" and relating to the Other who is beyond ourselves as "Thou". Only as I address the other person as "Thou" do I acknowledge the full dignity of their personhood.
And when that relationship of "I and Thou" takes root in the heart and in the will, then deeply human ties of respect, affection and shared commitments grow into committed and close relationships with those we call our closest friends. And within such friendship deeply human responses begin to be naturally expressed in trustful conversation, playful enjoyment of the other's presence, an inward orientation of care and commitment, and an investment of time and energy that is incalculable because unselfconscious, unreflective generous gift, the response of person to person and heart to heart. Friendship is not therefore a duty or a task, but the name we give to those few "I and Thou" relationships that not only enrich us but slowly and gently over time begin to define us by their very nature as gift and grace.
Reading Buber again for quite other reasons, I've been reminded of how profoundly relevant his view of the world is, in a world which is increasingly enmeshed in the endlessly trivial and restlessly fascinating web spinnings of social networking. It may be that Buber's passionate advocacy of personhood as that in the Other which we address as Thou, offers a way of putting social networking in its place. Facebook, Twitter, even this blog, can never be a substitute for person to person address, an intentional relationship of I and Thou.
At its best social networking supplements, informs, communicates and provides fuel and energy for existing relationships. Friendships as personal exchange and attentive address are nourished by such communication. In social networking stories are not only told but written in the fragments of exchange, and changed as they are responded to in the writing. But there are essential and defining qualities of human relating that cannot be replicated in social networking - they are what Buber means with his distinction between subject and object, Thou and It, - a vital life-enhancing distinction between that which I use as an "It" for my own ends, and this person whom I address as an end in herself or himself.
Here's vintage Buber - I and Thou take their stand not merely in relation, but also in the give and take of talk...Here what confonts us has blossomed into the full reality of the Thou. Here alone then, [in human friendship] as reality that cannot be lost, are gazing and being gazed upon, knowing and being known, loving and being loved.
The interactive gaze of two people, the knowing and being known, the loving and being loved, talking and listening, laughing and crying, supporting and being supported, these and much more that is of the extraordinary ordinariness of human friendship, are only visible expressions and signals of that address that in the presence of the other always, and faithfully, says "Thou". That is why the conversation of friends is such a great sacrament, the grace of words and silence, both alike interpreting and articulating the shared experience of the mystery and mercy of the life that is ours to live, and to share.