Sunday, 30 September 2012

I and Thou

I wish I had known my Grandad as a young man.  That sort of feeling has brought about television programmes like "Who do you think you are?", and a surge of interest in family history, which has become "Ancestory".  The story of our family is part of the story of ourselves.  Sometimes people search for answers to family secrets with a greater or lesser degree of success, and a greater or lesser degree of satisfaction with the outcome.

It is not secrets that I want to explore with my Grandad.  Although he would never talk about his experiences in the First World War, we observed the tender care that he showed to a neighbour who had been through it with him, and we became aware of bonds forged through danger and suffering.  Neither would he talk about his experiences as a young blade in America after the war.   My Grandad lived in the present not the past. 

The studio photograph in front of me shows my mother and her sister as young children with Grandma and Grandad.  My aunt poses prettily for the photograph, perched on her mother's knee.  My mother, a delicate child, leans back on Pop, her stepfather.  Pop, as everyone called him, was in his late thirties when he married the young widow, and he cared for her and her children and her children's children until he died forty years later.  He seemed contented with his life.  He had many friends and liked to sing old songs, the words of which I incompletely remembered as I sang them to my children.  He was patient with my sister and me, and would let me "style" his sparse hair and answer hundreds of questions, as he cut his tobacco and then puffed on his pipe.  He also knew when a child was tired and out of sorts and would say, "That child should be in bed".  I said it when my children were young and still say it today about my grandchildren.

The reason I wish I had known Pop as a young man is because of his use of a word.  He was the only person I have ever known who used the word "Thou".  He would use it in this way: if I sat on the stool beside his chair and fidgeted or sulked or just looked droopy he would quietly ask, "What dost thou want?"  When it all came pouring out he would not offer solutions but would ask questions about what I felt and what I wanted to do. Pop only used "Thou" when someone turned to him in need. Even as a child I must have understood that Pop’s use of “thou” demonstrated that he was giving attention to me as a singular and particular individual.

Years later when I studied psychotherapeutic techniques I was well aware that it was the relationship between the two people, the 'client' and the 'therapist', that provided the conditions for the therapeutic encounter.   In 1984 I bought a copy of Mario Jacoby's book "The Analytic Encounter".  His description of the necessary relationship between the therapist and client seems to sum up exactly what I heard in Pop’s use of “thou”:  

"The I - Thou attitude would involve a relation to the genuine otherness of the other person.  It would mean that I in my own totality am relating to Thou in his or her own totality”.

Jacoby states that these ideas are based on Martin Buber's book, "I and Thou" published in 1922.  Ah!  A man who lived through the times Pop lived through.  Buber and Jacoby wrote and spread their ideas.  Pop lived his.   Not a library of techniques or a wall full of certificates could create the healing power of a gentle voice asking, "What dost thou want?" 

What I got from Pop was a model of compassion and understanding; unconditional regard, coupled with responsibility for one's own actions; cheerfulness and contentment;  and practical everyday patience and kindness.  Most of all what I got when I needed it was his complete attention.

How I wish I had known him as a young man, as a young blade, as an adventurer and traveller.  Would we have talked about the meaning of life over a glass of bourbon in some American state?  I doubt it.  He was a man of action then.  The legend goes that he saved a young woman from a factory fire.  I don't care if the legend is true or not.  I do not idealize him. I would just like to have known him then and talked to him.  I would like to know how he knew about the power of "Thou".  It might have grown out of staring death in the face in the trenches.  I think that can only be part of it.  He was his own person.  He helped me to be mine.

In English we no longer use a word to differentiate between you in general, and you in particular, as an individual with his or her own outlook, feelings, thoughts and needs. But when relating to another person, we need to be mindful of regarding them not as a generic  “other” - the general “you” defined simply by not being “me” - but as a specific and unique individual. 

1 comment:

  1. How wise was your grandad? I am sure that living through the atrocities & hardships of a war cannot fail to alter how anyone feels or sees the world & how they relate to other people.

    When attempting to speak my school learnt French I never know when it is suitable to use 'tu' when speaking to another person rather than the more impersonal ' vous.' But I do agree that the word 'thou' has such an intimate feel to it & you could surely be in no doubt that the person using it was speaking to you alone.

    I was sad when the older English was not used in church anymore as it had such poetry & beauty all of its own. Sometimes change is not for the better & I can think of many words we could lose from our language that would not affect our ability to convey what we mean. There is no substitute for 'thou' though, is there?