Resisting the Call of the Other

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Jeffrey Thayne

In my last post, I talked about the difference between Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships, and how we as human beings oscillate between two entirely different ways of being. When I experience an I-It relationship with others around me, not only do I see them and myself in a “systematically distorted way,”1 but I am a different person altogether. I believe that the I-It relationship is the most common relationship. Any time we see others as nuisances, see their needs as less important than our own, or do not honor our obligations to those around us, we relate with others in an I-It relationship.

The Call of the Other

When we relate with others in an “I-Thou” relationship, we see them as people, with hopes, needs, and desires that are equally as important as our own. The book Leadership and Self-Deception describes it this way:

We’re all people. … And when we are out of the box and seeing others as people, we have a very basic sense about others—namely, that like me, they too have hopes, needs, cares, and fears. And on occasion, as a result of this sense, we have impressions of things to do for others—things we think might help them, things we can do for them, things we want to do for them.1

Warner continues this thought: “We are constantly receiving signals from others that reveal something of their needs and hopes and fears. … We are called upon by others’ unspoken requests, expressed in their faces and gestures and voices, to treat them with consideration and respect.”2

These subtle promptings can take many forms. Once, I was driving home from school, and this thought crossed my mind: “Fill up the car, so Dad won’t have to when he leaves tomorrow morning.” Another time, I had just entered the elevator on the ground floor of the Kimball tower at BYU when I saw someone running for the elevator. This thought crossed my mind: “Help that person catch the elevator, so he won’t have to wait for the next one.” On another occasion, I noticed that the trash can in my apartment was near overflowing. I had the fleeting impression, “Take out the trash, so that your roommate won’t have to do it.” Last semester, I was in my philosophy of law class, and a friend of mine didn’t show up to class. Again, I had an impression: “Take extra careful notes for your classmate who isn’t there, so that he can do well on the exam.”

On each of these occasions, I can hardly call the impressions I experienced “conscious thoughts.” They were fleeting and subtle. Only after the fact did I encapsulate them into words. However, it is clear that something about the people around me called upon me in a real and discernible way to help them, to serve them, and to love them.


Today, I would like to describe a case example that illustrates how a person moves from an “I-Thou” relationship to an “I-It” relationship. This example is lifted from Terry Warner’s article called What We Are. Warner describes the incident:

Marty was lying in bed, wrapped in the comfort of a deep sleep. He was and still is a young, ambitious businessman concerned about his career ladder and preoccupied most of the time with corporate assignments. As he slept, the four-month-old baby began to cry in the nursery just off the master bedroom. Marty roused, lifted his head, and looked at the clock. 2:30. His wife, Carolyn, lying next to him in her curlers and sleeping mask, wasn’t stirring.3

Warner then quotes Marty as he describes the experience in his own words:

At that moment, I had a fleeting feeling, a feeling that if I got up quickly I might be able to see what was wrong before my wife would have to wake up. I don’t think it was even a thought because it went too fast for me to say it out in my mind. It was a feeling that this was something I really ought to do. But I didn’t do it. I didn’t go right back to sleep either. It bugged me that my wife wasn’t waking up. I kept thinking it was her job. She has her work and I have mine. Mine starts early. She can sleep in. Besides, I was exhausted. Besides that, I never really know how to handle the baby. Maybe she was lying there waiting for me to get up. Why did I have to feel guilty when I’m only trying to get some sleep so I can do well on the job? She was the one who wanted to have this kid in the first place.3

Marty had a “fleeting” impression of something that he ought to do. According to Warner, when Marty “failed to do what he felt he ought to do, he betrayed himself. … Whether or not others expected him to share caretaking responsibilities with his wife, he expected himself to do it, at least on this occasion; it was his own expectation of himself that he betrayed.”3 Leadership and Self-Deception defines “self-betrayal” as “an act contrary to what I feel I should do for another.”

Prior to Marty’s act of self-betrayal, he saw his wife as a person with needs and desires just as real and important as his. He experienced a call to help her and serve her. He experienced a call of obligation to his wife that he could never experience if she were merely an object. He had an opportunity to respond to her humanity. He was relating with her in an I-Thou relationship.

After his act of self-betrayal, he began to see his wife as a hindrance to his personal goals and pursuits. He began to see his own needs and desires as more important than hers. He no longer recognized his obligations in the same way that he did before. He was relating with her in an I-It relationship. The “I” in the relationship—Marty—was a different person, because he was being different. He was resisting the call of the Other. He saw his wife and himself in a “systematically distorted way.”1

I have had similar experiences. As I described above, when I noticed that the trash can was full in my apartment last year, I perceived that I should take the trash out so that my roommate wouldn’t have to. I didn’t do it, and at one and the same moment, I began to be reminded how messy my roommate was, how frequently he neglected his part of the chores, how much of a hurry I was in, and how often I take out the trash. Just like Marty, I began to see my roommate as an annoyance, myself as a martyr, and in general, others as objects with needs less important than my own. My reality was distorted. I remembered no longer the subtle prompting I had ignored in my act of self-betrayal.

Why does this shift take place? In my next post, I will discuss self-deception, the process in which we deceive ourselves into believing a false reality. I will also explain why both Marty and myself shifted from an I-Thou to an I-It relationship.


1. Leadership and Self-deception. Published by the Arbinger Institute.
2. Terry Warner, Bonds that Make Us Free (Arbinger: Shadow Mountain, 2001).
3. Terry Warner, “What We Are,” BYU Studies 26, no. 1, 1986.


  1. Interesting post. Is Buber’s I-Thou experientical phenomenon possible in a world governed by social darwinism? Undirected, selfish genes a’la neo-darwinism are all I-It and not I-Thou, yet we experience I-Thou.

    According to the Duhem_Quine thesis, we judge the veracity of scientific theories on more than just scientific evidence (facts). We judge the veracity of theories based on other criteria such as breadth – which is the extent to which the theory explains and predicts phenomena in other domains. Evolution’s tenets of blind processes and survival of fittest does not explain I-Thou phenomena very well, does it?

  2. I definitely agree. My critical attitude about evolution hasn’t won me a lot of friends among scientists, though. 🙂

    Of course, the challenge with criticizing evolutionary theory is the fact that anything can be reinterpreted to fit within the paradigm. It’s imperialistic that way. You see, we have a genetic advantage over other species in that we can experience the world as though there are inexplicable obligations to respond to another’s humanity. Experiencing the world this way makes our species more likely to survive, because we are more apt to help each other and cooperate as a group. However, this is reduces the I-Thou phenomenon to something other than as we experience it, and turns it into a kind of adaptive illusion. By all accounts, you are right. Nothing in the evolutionary paradigm allows for a genuine I-Thou experience.

  3. Hey Jeff,

    If you are not a biologist and/or have not read The Origin of Species, then you have no right criticizing neo-Darwinism, at least that is what I’ve been told.

  4. Dave,

    I’ve been told that quite a few times. Nor can you be credible as a biologist if you criticize Neo-Darwinism. … In other words, you can’t criticize it unless you are a good biologist, and you can’t be a good biologist if you criticize it.

    Fortunately, I’ve read the literature. I plan on reading The Origin of Species again this summer, just to be sure.

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