Updated: Oct 19, 2020
I’ve been sorting through some stuff from my past recently, and like most sifting through of old memories, it’s been tough at times. I’ve been leaning on my oldest and closest friends, and I’ve been reminded of how lucky I am to have met these people on my road through life so far. I’ve valued the time spent talking about our worries, but also the simple pleasures of going for a walk, eating a good meal, and, perhaps most importantly, laughing (because most troubles can be eased with a bit of silliness.)
One thing I’ve realised is that sometimes, I’m just going to need a good cry. Perhaps that’s obvious, but for a trainee therapist I can be spectacularly bad at recognising this and letting out my own feelings.
I have one friend in particular who I know I can cry with, or call up to let my more messy feelings out. I call her because I don’t need someone to tell me everything will be fine, or to try to solve a problem for me. Frankly, there’s no solving some things. I need to share my deepest fears knowing they are going to be heard and respected.
What is it about those moments that truly help us? The relief of saying to another human being, this is awful, and to feel like they will actually hear, rather than push that feeling away? It can be hard to grasp the power of this encounter, and the ways it can shape both people.
For me one of the wisest and most profound guides to human relationships is Martin Buber, the Austrian philosopher. He suggested that it is acceptance from the other that we so long for; the possibility that we can simply be, and be seen in their eyes. This is not the same as approval. It is simply the nod of, yes, I, a human being, I see you.
This moment of meeting can be rare. Many of our daily interactions are necessarily far more transactional. We need things from people: To buy our coffee, to delegate work tasks, to sort out who’ll do the washing-up. Buber defined these interactions as ‘I-it,’ where we treat the other rather more as an object, an ‘it’ for more transactional purposes. This is not necessarily exploitative, but we operate as an observer, or an artist, in relation to the other person.
But when we meet someone in intimate acceptance, Buber identified another way of being: ‘I-Thou’. We allow someone to speak to us, and we are both changed fundamentally in the encounter. We accept and hear them as a human being of intrinsic worth. These encounters can be powerful, transformative and, as I have found over the past few weeks, healing.
A quixotic feature of our deepest relationships is that their most transformative moments can feel indefinable, ungraspable. Perhaps Buber captures some of that sense of the unknowable, where language largely fails us. When I spend time with my good friend, it is not the words she says to me that make the most impact, although they help. There is something of her presence overall, even down the phone, which tells me exactly what I most need in that moment: ‘I am here. And I hear you.’