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Roadside Musings

Spirituality and Pronouns

Photo Credit: Getty Images/georgi1969

Roadside Musings

In Roadside Musings, Rabbi Rami draws from the well of the world's religious and spiritual...
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“While I do my best to honor people’s pronoun preferences, the pronouns that really matter to me are the three spiritual pronouns: I, You, and It.”

While I yearn to be spiritually awake, I struggle when it comes to being socially woke. The reason this is so, I suspect, is that awake is far less complicated than woke. Case in point: pronouns.

Socially, there are 72 genders and dozens of pronouns reflecting them: she, he, they, ze, hir, zir, hirs, zirs, xe, xem, xyr, xyrs, xemself, fae, faer, faerself, perself, etc. While I do my best to honor people’s pronoun preferences, the pronouns that really matter to me are the three spiritual pronouns: I, You, and It.

The 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught that these three pronouns arise in pairs: I–It and I–You. To Buber’s two, I add a third: I–I.

I–It speaks to a relation with another in which the other is completely separate from yourself and is treated as an object, an “It”, to be used and even exploited in service to your goals . The “I” of I–It is separate from the rest of life, alienated from others and in opposition to or competition with them. This “I” is often fearful, angry, and violent seeing the world as a zero–sum battle of “me against you” and “us against them” where my success is at the expense of others, and the success of others is at my expense.

I–You speaks to a relation with another in which both parties see themselves and the other as unique, precious, and interdependent. The “I” of I–You is compassionate, patient, kind, and cooperative, seeing the world as nonzero in which the success of each being depends on the success of all.

I–I doesn’t speak to a relation with another which may be why Buber doesn’t mention it. I–I speaks to a level of awakening that knows all life as the happening of nondual Aliveness: Ehyeh (I’ing) revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14), Krishna revealed to Arjuna: “The whole world is pervaded by Me… all living things have their being in Me (Bhagavad Gita 9:4); and the God of St. Paul “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). There is no relation with another in I–I because there is no other only I­–I.

This is like an ocean awake to itself waving. Even as the ocean sees each wave as unique, the ocean knows all waves are not other than the ocean waving. There is only I as ocean and I as wave, hence: I–I.

Ignoring the preferred pronouns of another, or imposing your own preferred pronouns on them, is an act of I–It. Honoring and using the pronouns preferred by another is an act of I–You. This is part of what it is to be woke. Realizing there is only Aliveness happening as all lives is an act of I–I. This is what it is to be awake.

As important as it may be to be woke, do not imagine it is a substitute for being awake.

For more in this series, read about the role of prayer in spirituality.


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