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An I-Thou Moment

July 18, 2016

RRC student Nathan Kamesar recently earned his Master’s degree in nonprofit leadership from the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice. Here are his inspiring graduation remarks:

Good evening, everyone. I applied to the the nonprofit leadership program for two basic reasons: I wanted a credential to get a good job, and I wanted the skills to actually be able to do that job.

What I didn’t factor in, and what turned out to be the most transformative part of my experience, was something far more meaningful. You all. My classmates.

We take a course here at Penn where we sit in small groups, for 25 intense hours over the course of a weekend, and we’re told to simply describe to each other the thoughts and emotions we’re experiencing right then and there in relation to that group.

This allows us to focus on relationships, to see the hidden interpersonal, intragroup dynamics at work in the room. By being vulnerable to our classmates, we give them permission to be vulnerable with us. By putting aside typical distractions and being truly present for them, we begin to see our classmates for who they truly are, their fullest selves.

As my classmates know, I’m also studying to be a rabbi, and so I study Martin Buber, the theologian, who teaches something similar. He teaches about the importance of what he calls I-Thou moments, I-You moments. Life is meaningfully lived, he suggests, when, in relating to people, we are truly present to the relationship. We don’t see people before us as means to an end, as characters in our own personal psychodramas. We see them as powerful, compassionate human beings with their own sparks of life.

This idea extends to people we read about, too. The family fleeing Syria, the man serving the life sentence without parole for the nonviolent offense. If we’re able to picture them just for a moment, these teachings suggest, cultivating that full sense of empathy, the change we seek can begin to follow.

Aside from any global impact, the practice of being present for the people right in front of us can have an impact in a more modest but perhaps equally powerful sense. On us.  

When we put others first, our own loads feel lighter. When we treat the person in front of us like the only person that matters, even if just for that moment, our own problems fade to the background. It’s easier to marvel at the wonders of the universe, I’ve found, when we we don’t always put ourselves at the center of it. Fully, meaningfully relating to another awakens parts of ourselves that previously lay dormant, allows us to discover parts of ourselves that were previously unexamined.

At Penn, thanks to my classmates, I’ve experienced this. They’ve pushed me to become my best self, stumble as I might along the way. They’ve made me feel at home. Given me the strength to venture forward into unchartered territory. Buber writes that all actual life is encounter. If that’s true, then my encounters at Penn have been truly life-giving. And for that, class of 2016, I have you to thank. Thank you.


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