Martin Buber writes, in the opening of his work “I and Thou”, about the different ways that we treat others - in his words, we either create an “I-You” relationship, or an “I-It” relationship. Buber seems to indicate that the relationship chosen - one that treats another like a real entity (“I-You”), or one that treats another like an object (“I-It”) - impacts far more greatly on the self, than on the other.
In other words, when I relate to a person, place or thing as if that entity were an object, regardless of the possible negative impact I may have on that entity - say I was off-putting or disregarding to a person - the greater effect can be felt by me in the way that I have diminished myself by being someone who so diminishes another. Objectifying people, or things for that matter, diminishes ourselves, because we in turn objectify ourselves in the process.
How is this a spiritual insight?
Judaism teaches through the doing of things, the observance of commandments that place behavioral requirements upon us. Many of these behavioral structures fall into society building and improving categories - standards of reasonable behavior to get along with others. Buber’s insight leads us to the notion that behaving well towards others leads us to internal growth as well - entering into real relating, subject to subject relating, transforms us.
And so, Jewish spirituality begins with good conduct. One cannot be a private mystic in Judaism - the mystical path requires pursuing the path of the mensch, the good human being, as well. By continuing to struggle to be the better person to those around us, we engage in psychological, emotional, and spiritual growth. By becoming the better mensch, we become the better mystic.
Let us view this as a slight corrective to the popular concept of religion and spirituality in current American culture. Sitting by oneself, meditating, and reading holy texts - laudable pursuits, all of these, yet not enough on their own. Where the insight hits the interaction is where progress is made. Let us all start with being better neighbors and citizens, and see what that does for our spiritual growth.
[The full quote from Martin Buber’s I and Thou (Kaufman translation, Touchstone, 1970, page 53), reads:
The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic word is the word pair I-You.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.]