When does ‘they’ become ‘we’?

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!

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3 Responses to When does ‘they’ become ‘we’?

  1. John Thompson says:

    Christine, I’m reading your ‘paper’ late after a long ‘Army day’ i.e., meetings and hospital visitation, but I find myself refreshed by your reasoning on ‘they’ and ‘we’. I follow well what you say and knowing that identification is important, can I throw into the debate the words of Bramwell Booth when he said if I remember correctly ‘ Every land is my fatherland, since every land is my Father’s’ ( Christmas message 1915).

  2. janeslog says:

    When living in a different country you have to embrace some of the culture in order to integrate with the other residents. You will always keep some of your own culture but will also find new ways of behaving which you will enjoy. Learning the language will be a very difficult challenge but you will probably pick up some phrases from the residents.

    A number of Spanish people work in my office and they have adapted well to the culture and weather in Glasgow.

  3. Dr John says:

    This is a very interesting discussion of the ‘they’ or ‘you’ and the ‘we’ issue. I think I understand where Major Christine is coming from when she reckons that the ‘we’ may sound too familiar. I know that she wishes not to be presumptuous by assuming too much of an identification with her Latvian people whom she is just beginning to know. But every convert to Judaism and Christianity does this in order to become a ‘we’ and not remain an outsider. We do not wait until we have been years ‘knowing’ before we can graduate to being a ‘we’. British Naturalisation entitles the Naturalised to speak as being a Britain (a ‘we’) even if he has had little previous knowledge of what it is to be British. Ruth indeed became ‘we’ in a higher sense than ethnic race. Her identication with Naomi, with Naomi’s God and people is surely an identification with Israel and its history. Every convert to Judaism does this; he assumes all Israel’s history to be be his own and that he was there at the Exodus and Sinai Covenant. The way Jesus was able to save us was to assume our human nature. Only in this way could he become a faithful and merciful high priest. He became ‘we’. In turn it is only as we identify with Jesus as God’s divine son and redeeming work, can we be become one of his and become ‘we’. All that is true of him becomes true of us by imputation because of our identification with him and so with his people of long standing. This identification with Jesus means that ‘we’ were crucified at Calvary. As long we refer to others as ‘you’ or ‘they’ we are excluding ourselves from identification with them. I am a great admirer of Major Christine and of her integrity so I offer up these remarks for possible discussion and even disagreement with me.

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