The Insidious “They”

This post would be so much better if I could find the article that prompted it, but my Google-fu has failed me, and the piece remains floating out there in the aether of the internet. So instead of a concise summary, you get my memory of it.

Last summer, a friend alerted me to an article about the use of the word, “they.” The author, who was proud of his concern for the poor and the downtrodden, found himself making pronouncements about what “they” needed to do to change “their” situation. At some point (during or after the conversation)¬†he became aware of how unbearably smug he sounded. How, by his use of “they” in that repetitive and sure fashion, he was¬†presenting himself as The One Who Knows Best, although he did not grow up with the people he was discussing, did not live in that neighborhood, and had not talked with the “they” in question about their own analysis of their situation, nor had he talked with them about any history of attempts to address their low socioeconomic status. His language revealed him as exactly the kind of person he didn’t want to be, and he vowed to stop using “they.”

Although we can’t really remove “they” from our vocabulary, because it is the grammatically correct pronoun for a group of people that doesn’t include you, we can work on removing the sureness that we are right and if only “those people who can’t understand themselves” would only listen to “the one with the correct interpretation,” all would be solved.

Because often “they” know better than The Experts.

There’s a TED talk to cover every topic, and this is no exception. This one is about an international aid guy, Ernesto Sirolli, who refused to swoop in as an “expert” about what people in impoverished situations needed, and, instead, listened to the people in those situations. He hung out in coffeeshops and gave small amounts of money to local entrepreneurs who, in turn, made huge changes in their lives and fortunes. The talk is, perhaps unsurprisingly, called, “If you want to help someone, shut up and listen.”

Here’s an example, not from that TED talk (although the TED people are on to this kid). In Kenya, lions are a major tourist attraction, but they kill a lot of livestock, and then people kill lions in retaliation. There are fewer than 2,000 lions in Kenya now, down from 15,000 ten years ago. People were looking into this problem, and the best solution they found was for property owners to install huge and prohibitively expensive fences. Then they heard about an 11-year-old kid, Richard Turere, who discovered that lions stayed away from his family’s cattle at night when someone walked around with a flashlight. He rigged up several flashlight bulbs, wired them to a motorcycle indicator box, and powered them with a car battery and solar panel. The lights flick on and off all night to imitate a person walking outside. No lions have attacked his family’s livestock in the two years Lion Lights have been installed, and now families all over Kenya are using them. At a cost of about $10 per installation. Very cool.

That doesn’t really have to do with the topic at hand — I’ve just been wanting to share that story.

So back to us and them

The article about the guy not wanting to use “they” anymore stuck with me, because, when I read it, my husband was being courted for a job at a new church, which meant we’d be attending said new church as a family. It was quite different from the church we’d been part of, and we were full of talk about what “they” needed, and what “we” could bring to “them.”

On the one hand, this was correct. They wanted to hire him because of what they thought he could bring to them, and my husband wanted the job because, with his unique blend of gifts and experience, he felt he could make a difference there. But there was more than a hint of smugness in our conversation. And it didn’t sit well.

It takes time for “them” to become “us.” I moved to the U.S. from Canada when I was 18, and, although I was granted American citizenship before arriving, it took several years for me to say “us” and “we” about my adopted country. I had to drop my Canadian disdain for how much America loved itself, my Canadian distrust of how much power the U.S. wields. I had to recognize that I wasn’t moving back to Canada: I chose to stay during the summers, I kept dating American boys, and I didn’t even look for a job in Toronto after graduation. I was an American. So I started talking like one. And feeling like one.

It’s taking time at the new church, too. But it’s happening. The more people we get to know, the more we worship and pray together, the harder it is to maintain the separation necessary to see these wonderful and complex people I worship with as “they.” Which is how it should be.

The best “them into us” moment came the last time I led children’s worship. I’ve written before about how worshipping and sharing Bible stories with kids has become a real passion, a calling, even. At the old church, I knew all the kids so well. I was more comfortable talking with them than with many of the adults. And we did talk and interact outside of our children’s church time. We had real relationships. At the new church, I don’t have that yet, although I’m getting there.

Last month, at the end of our time together, we were singing their favorite silly song about Joshua and the Israelites blasting their trumpets and the walls of Jericho coming tumbling down. We’d done about four rounds and were all in a good mood. I was still kneeling on the floor when the quietest little girl came up and gave me a hug. It was so sweet. And then her sister joined her. And then another kid. And then all the kids left “the wall” and piled on me until they knocked me flat on my back. We got up, and they did it again. And then again.

It was one of my happiest moments at this church so far.

I love that they felt so free with me. It suits how I am with them — a little less formal, a little wackier than the other worship leaders. It gave me hope that I’ll get to the point of knowing them and them knowing me.

Their dogpiling of me was like the Kool Aid man busting through a foam brick wall in those old TV commercials: now there’s a huge hole in the wall of “they.” And the warmth of “us” is shining through.

I’m not saying I want them to do it the next time. That might be too much of a good thing. But God sure did use those kids that day.


Kool Aid man image found here.