I’ve had this question on my mind for a long time and have been meaning to muse on it here.
It all started in the early days of writing the blog when I asked a friend, whose opinion I value and who knows me well enough to tell me the truth, what he thought of it. Gently, he pointed out that he’d noticed that, when referring to Latvians I used ‘they’, and he implied that, living here now I should identify more closely with them by using the more inclusive ‘we’. Much later, when I was trying to find a good reason for us to have a bit of a party at the office, one of the people in the office laughingly said, ‘you are beginning to talk and think like a Latvian, Christine.’ These two incidents started me thinking about this question ; when does ‘they’ become ‘we’. In other words, when does the ‘outsider’ become ‘one of us’. Well, I don’t think they ever really do – not completely anyway, but that conclusion is neither the end of this blog nor the end of my musings on the subject!
To defend myself against my friend’s helpful comment, the reason I would not use the inclusive ‘we’ in writing about Latvia, is because, at this stage of my life here it seems to me to be presumptuous, actually, quite patronising to assume that I can align myself with the Latvians of whom I write. It would seem a bit like a complete stranger visiting my house for the first time and going straight into the kitchen, putting on the kettle, and making himself at home! What do I know, after 7 months here, about Latvia, about its culture, history, what makes Latvia and Latvians ‘tick’? I’ve only just got my foot in the door. I can’t even understand or speak their (very challenging!) language! So, to my Latvian readers, I do not use ‘they’ as a detached observer, but I use it out of respect for you and your culture and in recognition of the fact that I do not have the right to speak for you and as one of you. I am not ‘we’!
I discovered in my musings that ‘they’ got a bad press in an altogether rather unlikely place. Another friend with whom I was sharing my embryonic thoughts on this subject pointed me to the wicked son in the story of the Jewish Passover. Each year the story of the liberation of the Jews from Egypt is told in the ‘we’ form, ‘we were delivered from the hand of Pharaoh’, for example. The great sin of the wicked son is that, in retelling the story he uses ‘they’, and thus stands accused of being detached, uninvolved, not standing in solidarity with his fellows Jews. He has every right to be ‘we’, but deliberately chooses ‘they’. I can see why this stance would be considered to be provocative, even wicked, but perversely it was this story that made me see that sometimes there are advantages to being ‘they’. At the very least ‘they’ help ‘we’ to see situations from a very different perspective, one which might shed new light on an issue with which ‘we’ is altogether too familiar. Take this story itself for example. Re-telling the miraculous story of deliverance commemorated at the Passover as an active participant might, at the very least become boring, and at worst so familiar as to lose its ‘edge’. Maybe, just maybe, looking at it from the perspective of ‘they’, standing, so to speak, in a different place to see this incredible event, might renew a sense of wonder and awe that is missing from the perspective of being ‘inside’ the event as ‘we’. So, I would suggest that ‘they’ have something to contribute, the ‘outsider’ may just have a different perspective which might be worth considering. I’d like to think that might be the case in my sojourn here in Latvia; there might just be something worthwhile about coming here, as I do, with my ‘they’ perspective. I do hope so.
If you haven’t given up in total confusion yet, but are still with me, I’ve one more thought to share on the subject.
Keeping up the biblical theme, my thoughts went to the story of Ruth. She was, in Jewish terms, a ‘they’, a Moabite woman. Many of you will know the story, her incredible declaration of loyalty to her Jewish mother-in-law is one which is a favourite reading at weddings. She accompanied Naomi on her return to Israel, found a husband there, and, amazingly, became one of the ancestors of Jesus himself. There’s no attempt to make her an ‘honorary’ Jew, or for the Bible to pretend that she is ‘we’. She remains ‘they’, because in some ways that’s the whole point of the story. Her honoured place as an ‘outsider’ in the genealogy of the Messiah is a constant reminder to the Jews that God’s love and faithfulness was ‘for the whosoever’, to use a phrase well-loved by Salvationists, for the ‘they’ as well as the ‘we’. Her loyalty and devotion to her new country and family has earned for her a lasting place in Jewish history.
Ruth’s story encourages me. I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never be ‘we’ here in Latvia, but, like her, I’ll try to be the most devoted and loyal ‘they’ I can be!