March 9, 2015

I and You and We

About two years ago I wrote a series of reflections for Forward Day by Day. For those who didn't grow up in the Episcopal Church, these are booklets of reflections on the daily scripture can be found in the narthex of nearly every Episcopal Church in the country. They now have a readership of about 500,000.

I received a bit of mail in response to my reflections. I'm embarrassed to say I did not respond to a lot of it, though I appreciated the response. I remember in particular one email. The writer had noticed that I began many of my reflections with the word "I". Why, she wanted to know, did I do this?

I just completed another set of reflections for the 2016 Forward Day by Day publication, and so I've been thinking again about this two-year old email exchange. This time around as I wrote my reflections I was conscious of my tendency to begin sentences with “I,” yet I couldn't seem to avoid it and eventually gave up trying.

And here's why: I like to tell stories, and most of the stories I have to tell are about myself. Especially in the context of short reflections about faith, I don't believe I can or should speak for others most of the time.

Perhaps this is a generational difference. I recently came across this article in The Atlantic about the growing use of "I" as opposed to "we." The use of personal pronouns has been growing in recent decades, but this isn't necessarily a sign of narcissism. Also, it turns out, people with more authority or higher status tend to use "we" but people of lower status tend to use "I" more often.

"No, 'we' isn't necessarily such a communal word after all,” the writer in The Atlantic says. “It often comes off as presumptive and exclusionary, and can be seen as one group speaking—out of turn—for others.”

"We" can be used to co-opt people who disagree, to erase difference and diversity. My faith, like every faith, is idiosyncratic. I have doubts and questions and beliefs that are particular to me and my experience. If I use "we" too often, I am in danger of excluding all those people who don't believe the same things I do, whose experience and faith and doubts differ from mine.

Truth, I think, lives in the specifics of life. It lives in stories. We all know this. That's why we read novels and tell each other about ourselves on dates. It's in our own experience where we discern meaning and find clues to the workings of God.

Of course, there has to be a place where my experience and yours connect. Otherwise there's no point in speaking to one another. So when I begin with "I", I am hoping to tell you a story about myself and maybe in that story, you can find yourself as well.

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