The extent to which we see forgiveness as significant is determined by the importance we attach to relationships. I believe that relationships are the source from which humans derive their very identities—without an “other” there can be no me. This belief in philosophical language is called “I and Thou” and was first articulated by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Because the idea of needing relationships in order to have some sense of self seems so foreign to the Western mindset I think two examples are required to comprehend this point.
Example #1 comes from Walter Brueggemann’s The Covenanted Self. In the first chapter of this book Brueggemann explains I and Thou in the context of a baby and its mother. He notes how a baby is dependent on her mother in every sense—not only for food and basic care but also for forming her identity. When a baby is newly born the mother gives attention and praises everything the baby does–whether it smiles, burps, etc. This display of love celebrates the baby for who she is and thereby encourages and allows her to gain a sense of self. Of course as time goes on the mother must inevitably distance herself from her child and allow the baby to experience other “thous” and thereby obtain a healthier and more complete identity as she comes into contact and relates to other “I’s”. This validity of Brueggemann’s example is most tragically driven home through the many cases of neglected infants who struggle the rest of their lives with their inability to form a healthy sense of self.
If example #1 provides a positive example of how identity is shaped through relationship then example #2 provides a negative example of what occurs when there is no “thou”. What I have in mind here are the extreme cases where a human child is raised by animals. These cases have been brought to the public’s attention through T.V. documentaries and books such as The Boy Raised as a Dog. What these stories tell us is that if a human child is separated from other human contact at an early age and is instead surrounded by animals the child will actually behave more like the animal and less like a human. In fact much of the damage caused by being raised by animals are irreversible. In cases where humans raised by animals have been found and studied, scientists have noted that parts of their brains are missing—most notably the part which allows us to learn language.
Despite the fact that the two examples listed above may represent extreme examples, the principles of I/Thou still apply in more everyday examples. We can imagine for instance how a spouse, child, parent, or friend draw out in their own unique way different parts of who we are and even to some extent shape our identity. From basic examples such as the way we talk, the music we listen to, dress, and joke—to more important matters such as what we think about ourselves, God, and the world. If we think about contact with others in this way then forgiveness becomes a serious matter indeed. When I lose any thou, I lose a part of me. The significance of this loss is obviously dependent on the closeness of relationship—however even still one fact remains: we need each other.