Sharing Territory

How are we educated by children, by animals!

                       Martin Buber

In my forties I was the father of three teenagers. I knew enough psychology to perhaps avoid a few common blunders, but nowhere near enough to do a great job raising the three of them. It would be fair to say I learned from them as we went along.

As an only child, I had lived with many expectations to be just the kind of son my mother always wanted to have. I decided early on not to live vicariously through my children. It is a classic, almost archetypal thing for parents to do; wanting for their children all those things they never had themselves. It seems so natural when you love someone to want the best for them and to want to protect them from harm and mistakes in their lives.

One of my first girlfriends’ father was a minister. He introduced me to Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”. I think he was trying to caution me not to be possessive about his daughter. I did learn soon enough on my own that we cannot love and control a person at the same time.

Love requires freedom, even the love of a child. I set out knowing my children were not miniature versions of me, but their own individuals. The fact that all three were adopted made it more obvious that they might not have come into this world with my traits, likes or dislikes, but that should hold just as true for biological children.

A colleague of mine from India once said about her youngest son, “I hope he grows up to be a good person”. It seemed so simple, yet wise: All we as parents can do is give our children the best start we can and hope for the best. An exasperated neighbor once said about her son, “There comes a time when all you can say is I love you, good luck“.

All three of my children have said, in one way or another, that they appreciated my respect for them as individuals. They have also pointed out that they respected me for letting them know when I disagreed with them.

With my children now around 30 years old and my grandchildren still blissfully young, the only experience I have with teenagers these days is as patients in the office. I can certainly draw from my having lived with three teenagers in those situations, but I am drawing more and more from the past few years’ lessons I have learned from P., our white Arabian Princess.

An 800 lb horse who thinks most humans are likely to hurt her or mistreat her is like some of the teenagers that have come into my office. Domination is unlikely to work with a fearful animal of flight with the power to escape or punch your lights out.

Much of what I have done with P., I figured out myself. Emma also pointed me in the direction of horse trainer Carolyn Resnick, whose “Waterhole Rituals” are a foundation for relationship building between horse and human.

P., fresh from the horse rescue, was suspicious of Emma, who had defended her gelding from the kicks and nips P. tried to inflict on him. Perhaps I seemed like the best choice P. had for an ally, knowing nothing about horses, and expecting nothing in particular from her. Perhaps I reminded her of her first owner, the man who named her and raised her from a foal.

Our white Arabian horse gave me a sense of awe. She was so beautiful; I had never seen the facial expressions and body language of a horse up close quite like that before. Her eyes could be glaring when she looked across the pasture at some danger in the nearby woods I couldn’t discern. Whenever she looked at me and I just stood or sat still in the barn or on the other side of the fence from her, her eyes grew soft and kind. If I got up or made a sudden move, they would widen and the whites would show, her neck would stiffen, her tail would rise and every muscle in her body would tighten. Sometimes she would run away from me. If I just sat there quietly, she would come back with a kind, quizzical look, as if to say, “What are you, what are you doing?”

Instinctively, I was doing the first of the Waterhole Rituals, Sharing Territory. By now, four years later, P. and I trust each other, and she will do almost anything for me. She nickers when I approach her and we go for walks around the pasture, side by side, without halter or lead rope. I clean her stall around her and she moves politely when I ask her to.

A horse will naturally move away from an approaching stranger, but is likely to come over and investigate a stranger standing or sitting still inside the horse’s territory. If the stranger walks away, the horse will likely follow.

This is how I have also come to understand working with teenagers. Just like P., they don’t assume your intentions are good and they don’t like it when you tell them what to do, but if you show that you are interested in them and if your interest is genuine, they may want to know you better. But their senses are exquisite – they can smell deceit or trickery miles away and if you come on too strong, they will run like wild mustangs (or white Arabians).

Which brings me back to Martin Buber:

There are two kinds of relationships we can enter into. One is the “I-It” relationship, where we view ourselves as controlling the “other” by taking pleasure from it/him/her or even just by analyzing or classifying it according to our worldview.

The other kind of relationship Buber named “Ich-Du” in German. It has been translated as “I-Thou”, even though “Du” is an informal, intimate word for “you” and not at all as formal as “thou”. This is a relationship where we meet on a level that is free from selfishness, judgment, opinion, even reflection or analysis. It is an intimate encounter between two beings in their most authentic form. This is also the type of encounter man has with God or the Universe when all the trappings of religious ceremony are removed.

An “I-Thou” encounter lacks structure and content. It has no agenda, because any kind of purpose would objectify the “other” and make it an “I-It” encounter. It is simply entering the common space where both of our innermost beings exist.

“Sharing Territory” almost says it better, especially in light of the fact that Martin Buber actually first thought of the I-and-Thou relationship when he as a pre-teen developed a relationship with a horse.

In “Between Man and Man”, he describes a fleeting moment, when he connected with the horse on a level that stirred an awareness in him and briefly brought him into a universal experience where the horse wasn’t just a horse, but a part of a common “Other”, previously unknown to the young Martin Buber:

“When I was eleven years of age, spending the summer on my grandparents’ estate, I used, as often as I could do it unobserved, to steal into the stable and gently stroke the neck of my darling, a broad dapplegray horse. It was not a casual delight but a great, certainly friendly, but also deeply stirring happening. If I am to explain it now, beginning from the still very fresh memory of my hand, I must say that what I experienced in touch with the animal was the Other, the immense otherness of the Other, which, however, did not remain strange like the otherness of the ox and the ram, but rather let me draw near and touch it. When I stroked the mighty mane, sometimes marvelously smooth-combed, at other times just as astonishingly wild, and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the Other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me. The horse, even when I had not begun by pouring oats for him into the manger, very gently raised his massive head, ears flicking, then snorted quietly, as a conspirator gives a signal meant to be recognizable only by his fellow-conspirator; and I was approved. But once–I do not know what came over the child, at any rate it was childlike enough–it struck me about the stroking, what fun it gave me, and suddenly I became conscious of my hand. The game went on as before, but something changed, it was no longer the same thing. And the next day, after giving him a rich feed, when I stroked my friend’s head he did not raise his head. A few years later, when I thought back to the incident, I no longer supposed that the animal had noticed my defection. But at the time I considered myself judged.”

“Sharing Territory”, be it with a horse or a human being, is the purest form of encounter there is. I did not specifically set out to “heal” the wounds of my rescue horse any more than I personally believe I have the power to “heal” a troubled patient. But I have often seen that when you enter the space created by stripping away prejudice, projection and preconception, profound healing is possible.

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.


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