Sketch of an old footbridge over a stream

The Bridge Between

Exploring dialogue through the lens

of Martin Buber and Contextual Therapy

The Exquisite Dance of Giving and Receiving

Janet Stauffer

Published: March 15th, 2019

He was sitting on a blanket in my office floor surrounded by baby toys and building blocks. Mother handed him a bottle of milk and he drank. He picked up a toy handing it to mother. She received it. He picked up a block and reached out his little arm, another gift for her. She smiled as she accepted it, “Thank you Jose.” Jose beamed. His legs and arms pummeled the air with pleasure.

I witnessed in those moments the exquisite dance of giving and receiving that brings us into personhood, that helps us be more human. We learn early in life that we will be given to and we experience our capacity to receive. Responsively, we give to another and learn its delight. The healthy dynamic between a parent and child orchestrates these dance movements in their varied forms across the life cycle. Inherent in living is a recognition we are owed something, and that we owe others too. Multiple challenges are braided into that knowing. How much do I owe my parent who gave me life? In this moment, do I have to stay and care for her or can I do what I want? Parents feel torn between over giving to children or not giving enough. Where is the rule book to guide us?

Manuels that detail how each part operates and when they turn on and off are for machines. Intrinsic in being human is the demand to write our own page. The page is never ours alone because we are who we are through the relationships with others. Early in life we are addressed by those who give us care and we respond. We begin to trust mother will be there with a smile when we offer our toy. We experience the delight of being seen and received by another as we engage them. Through these interactions we learn the ways to be fair and trustworthy. We learn emotional self-regulation and become securely attached to another. We learn that we are, we exist. We have meaning in life. We merit love and care. As do others. Together we engage the dance of living through relationships.

And, at some point, the dance steps break down. One partner stumbles or misses a beat or doesn’t show up for the routine. We learn that parents are not always fair, at least in how we see our need. Eventually, we recognize we injure others as well. The reality is there is no perfect dance step. Like a good jazz number, the melody emerges as we are creatively attuned in the moment.

Synchrony will ebb and flow. We move in and out of being present to self and others. We exist in the material world in time and space and it brings us back to function and concrete needs. Buber reminded us that too often we settle for function and objects, what we can consume, with tragic result. Too often, we miss the other, the moment of being fully present in the midst of addressing and responding, of giving and receiving. This is where real living is. This is the exquisite dance of giving and receiving that brings us into personhood, that helps us be more human.