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Quantity and Quality of Life

Contrast quantity with quality of life:  Knowing about with knowing.  Being noticed with being meant.  Seen as one of a group with touched uniquely.  Lost four pounds with lost a key illusion.  Demographic data versus insight, humility, wisdom. 

Life’s quality is enhanced by contact.  Touch and talk.

Martin Buber made a metaphor for this:  “The Walking Stick and the Tree.”  “After a descent during which I had to utilize without a halt the late light of a dying day,” he wrote,

I stood on the edge of a meadow, now sure of the safe way, and let the twilight come down upon me.  Not needing a support and yet willing to afford my lingering a fixed point, I pressed my walking stick against the trunk of an oak tree.  Then I felt in twofold fashion my contact with being: here, where I held the stick, and there, where it touched the bark.  Apparently only where I was, I nonetheless found myself there too where I found the tree.

At that time dialogue appeared to me.  For the speech of a person is like that stick wherever it is genuine speech, and that means: truly directed address.  Here, where I am, where ganglia and organs of speech help me to form and to send forth the word, here I ‘mean’ him to whom I send it, I intend him, this one unexchangeable person.  But also there, where he is, something of me is delegated, something that is not at all substantial in  nature, like that being here, rather pure vibration and incomprehensible; that remains there, with him, the person meant by me, and takes part in the receiving of my word.  I encompass him to whom I turn.[1]

Truly directed address, Buber says, can connect people.  When it's noticed, genuinely heard, and reciprocated, the conversation partners "mean" not only what they say, but also they "mean" each individual, unexchangeable other.  This is an odd way to talk.  Do you get a sense of what he's saying?  Can you recall when you experienced this--your saying touching the other, and the other's touching you?


Talk and touch form us culturally, too, and in different ways.  Consider the poem, “On asking a black woman if you might touch her hair.”  Especially if you’re White, ask yourself why such a seemingly mundane request might warrant such a directional reply.


Roger Bonair-Agard


Be black

 If you aren’t black, be her man,

or a friend since childhood.

Preface the request with I know this

is weird and calls to mind many

crazily embedded racial histories

but. . .

If her hair is dreaded

rethink the request.

Preface the request

with the honorific “Sister”

only if you are black.

Be Black

Make sure you’ve seen

her smile first.  Make sure

you know what kind of day

she’s been having.

 Make sure you’re the only

two people in the room.

Have a well thought out

response for when she asks


The word fascination should not

be part of the response.

Be Black

Have more than one

black friend.

Do not bring up how much

you know about black culture.

Be Black 

If she doesn’t answer you

do not assume she didn’t

hear you

                  the first time.[2]

And So?

      What reminders follow from all this?  What advice?

  • Let's care about our talk.  Attend to what we say, and how.  Pause before we attack.  Filter hurtful jabs.  Be authentic and caring. 
  • Voice each appreciation.  "You look good."  "Thank you."  "I appreciate your time."  "I didn't think of that."  "This is going well."
  • Learn and avoid trigger words and phrases--"You people," "It's fine, but. . . ."  "That's really good for a ________."  "You guys. . . ."
  • Make mundane touches count--a firm and real handshaker, a brief pat of support or comfort, appropriate and genuine hugs.
  • Be preesent.  Put away your phone.  Stop and focus.  repeat his key words to yourself.  Postpone your agendas.  Look at her, not around the room.
  • Join talk that builds community--group chants, prayers, and songs, address-and-response, affirmations. 
  • Ask for what's okay--"Black" or "African American?"  "Girls" or "women?"  "Are you a hug

 Touch matters.  Talk matters.  Each of us, with everything we say and do, helps build the human worlds we inhabit.  Complaints half-truths, criticism, attacks, exaggerations, abuse, ridicule, contradictions, violence, angry silence, isolation, and scorn help build toxic worlds.  Candor, appreciation, kindness, tentativeness, humility, support, engagement, genuine curiosity, presence, gentleness, consideration, and acts of love help build worlds we all want.

 As we talk and as we touch, so we are.



[1] M. Buber, Meetings.  Ed. M. Friedman.  LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1973, pp. 41-42.

[2] R. Bonair-Agard.  Bury My Clothes.  Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013, pp.78-79.

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