I and Thou, Fetus

I am somewhere between a few hours and a few days of becoming a dad, and righteously becoming this blog’s eponym (my hipness, it should go without saying, is already well-established). I have never met my daughter, and I’m not embarrassed to say that I can hardly wait.

At some point over the last nine months the idea that it’s my daughter inside my wife’s burgeoning belly became very real. And I’m starting to have a very strong emotional bond to this thing. There are moments when I rest my ear on the bump and caress it, almost to provoke a reaction (from baby, not wife). I can feel her move in there, kicking and jabbing, almost in response to my stimulation. It’s transcendental, really.

But do I seriously think that Baby is aware of me? And if she is, does she at all grok who I am? And if she were, does she share those moments of transcendence? Is she self-aware? Does she wonder to herself, “Trippy… that’s my dad out there?”

To meditate over these puzzling ontological quandaries, let us delve briefly into the world of dialogical existence (No, I’m not sure either what I just wrote).

Martin Buber, in his treatise Ich und Du (I and Thou), describes intimate, authentic encounters between beings. These so called I-Thou relationships occur spontaneously and are devoid of any conditions and expectations. Buber asserts that the I-Thou relationship can be between two people, between a person and God, and between an observer and an object. I find the notion beautiful, but I’ll stop explaining philosophical positions beyond my area of expertise (hipdadology, of course), for fear of becoming a modern jackass. You can read the rest of the Wikipedia entry and judge for yourself.

For a time I’ve been bothered by one of Buber’s illustrations of the I-Thou relationship — that between him and his cat. He maintained that the encounter was just as holistic and transcendental as that between him and others or even between him and God. Isn’t there something a tad strange about sharing a moment with kitty? And forget about objects like trees. It’s not mutual, after all. The cat can’t know about existential philosophy (wait, can it?). I might admit that animals are self-aware, but are they self-perceiving? Can they meditate or experience brief moments of enlightenment? (Buber’s retort might be that it is the very idea that cats — or trees — do not come to the encounter with that existential baggage that makes them almost superior candidates for the Thou in the I-Thou relationship.)

Back to babies. I think that after many years, I finally get what Buber meant. I am having an I-Thou relationship with an unborn fetus. Those moments for me are very authentic, and very transcendental. It does help knowing that it’s my daughter in there. And it does help knowing that in a few days I will finally meet her.

But it is a little odd. In reality, I am having an I-Thou relationship with a quasi-spherical object located at my wife’s midsection (incidentally, she’s been complaining that lately I give her no attention). I can conjure images of what my daughter looks like, what her personality might be like. But really, I have no clue. It’s all just inside my own head. No offense to her, but in this I-Thou relationship, she is very much akin to a cat or a tree. I can make believe that those kicks and movements are some playful gesture on her part, but they’re really not much more than developmental biology at work. (Daughter, if you are reading this in 18 years or so, know that I meant you no harm.)

Maybe there is some learned primal adaptation to my voice, but my daughter is not conscious, I don’t think. She is not reacting to any of my stimulations, verbal or physical. But I don’t care. Even armed with this knowledge, it’s awesome and visceral. I am already attached to her. Nine short months ago, I couldn’t choose a piece of skin on my wife’s midsection and become this preoccupied with it (well, not in the midsection, at least). Now, it’s wrapping what is set to become the most important person in my life.

Then again, this reaction I’m having could all be part of a parental evolutionary mechanism to nurture our young. Maybe Martin Buber’s I-Thou encounters too are evolutionary human instincts to form lasting interpersonal bonds and build civilizations. And, not to sound like some clinical, arrogant atheist, perhaps there is something metaphysical at play. But however you slice it, it is very, very cool.