What is it that possesses people to hurl their beloved characters or celebrities at each other and watch for sparks, like scientists at the Large Hadron Collider bashing subatomic particles together hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive Higgs Boson? As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in an 1841 essay, rooting for love has always been a part of human nature:
The strong bent of nature is seen in the proportion which this topic of personal relations usurps in the conversation of society. What do we wish to know of any worthy person so much, as how he has sped in the history of this sentiment?...And what fastens attention, in the intercourse of life, like any passage betraying affection between two parties? Perhaps we never saw them before, and never shall meet them again. But we see them exchange a glance, or betray a deep emotion, and we are no longer strangers. We understand them, and take the warmest interest in the development of the romance. All mankind love a lover.
Perhaps shipping also reflects the yearning for a small moment of control in a chaotic world. Children often react to their inherent powerlessness by retreating to the wide-open spaces of their imagination. They make their dolls kiss (or fight), and feel a sense of control that they lack in the real world. As fans, people may not be the author of the fictional worlds they love to inhabit, but when they ship, they can momentarily grab the wheel in the most exhilarating of ways—envisioning and championing relationships that demonstrate their own mastery of a created universe, and their true feelings about how love should exist in that world, if not indeed in their own.
Personally, I tend to ship couples who take center stage after the series-defining relationships between more predictable characters fizzle or fade into the background. I shipped Chandler and Monica. Willow and Tara. The short-lived Worf and Troi. But I also have an OTP. A fictional relationship that I champion above all others because I see in it the best expression of the kind of love that I root for in this world. It’s not two characters from my favorite TV show or novel.
It’s 20th century philosopher Martin Buber and his tree (let’s call them Truber). In his seminal work, I and Thou, Buber uses his arboreal encounter to describe the ultimate relationship. Buber’s tree is not the exploited self-loathing specimen from Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. No, as unlikely as it seems, Buber and this tree have a relationship based on true mutuality. It is one man experiencing the divine in the singular non-objectification of a fellow living being.
Apparently, I’m not the only one to ship Truber hard. Romantic comedy writer David Kohan studied the works of Martin Buber in college, and was similarly impressed by Buber’s take on relationships. This passage from I and Thou stood out in particular for Kohan:
It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it…There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget…The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood, but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it -- only in a different way. Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: the relationship is mutual.
In an interview with The Buffalo News, Kohan describes how Buber's text inspired him to create a sitcom based on his understanding of an ideal relationship: “Buber wrote, ‘You need the Will to go after it and the Grace to receive it.' I thought, wow. These are two complementary things. If we ever had a love story with two complementary people, those would be great names.”