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.

Humbling: Kids’ Opinions

In honor of a humbling experience this weekend (Saturday morning trip to the ER with piercing pain on breathing, diagnosis: pleurisy), I’m going to do a few posts on humbling experiences.

Number One: Asking kids for their opinions of my writing.

I’ve written the first in what I hope to be a series on novels based on the biblical story of David and Saul. I’ve tried to aim it at the middle grade audience — mostly at my son, who was 11 when I started writing it, just turned 13 now. I’ve never written for that age group before, so when I finished all the drafting and after my two mothers read it through and I’d incorporated their comments, I recruited my son and some of his friends. The deal was, if they read it and answered 9 or so questions, I’d give them a small honorarium and I’d put them in the acknowledgments if this thing was ever published.

I’ve gotten five response sheets back so far.

They were mostly good news. All the boys said it held their interest from the very beginning, they mostly understood the passage of time (it being B.C.E., years run backwards), they all enjoyed the level of poetry/psalms included, and they found the ending generally satisfying and believable (given that it’ll be a series; as a standalone, it’d be a bad ending).

After that, there was little they agreed on. I let all the comments percolate for awhile, and I hadn’t even thought about making changes until this weekend. It’s fascinating how, even among this small group of 5 guys, age range of 11 to 14, certain responses split by age. The younger two liked the battles, including killing Goliath and the lion, best and got a little bored when David played for Saul and when he was shepherding. They weren’t as into Saul’s story, which makes sense for their age group: the drama of grownups isn’t as interesting as the drama of kids. They wanted to know more about the battles.

The older three didn’t mention anything about Saul being an issue. One of the older boys got bored during a family dinner scene during which David interacts with Merab and Michal for the first time (Saul’s daughters, each of which had just been offered to him in marriage). There is plenty of tension in that scene, some of which is David fighting his sense of place and his sense of Michal’s crush on him and his growing attraction to her. I don’t think I’ll mess with that scene too much, because boys that age can have their own tension about more romantic scenes, and, on the other hand, one of the adult women who’s read it wanted to know more about the stuff between Michal and David. Although this is a book written for young people, their parents may likely read it as well. I certainly read a lot of what my kids do, including other middle grade and young adult stuff for my own enjoyment. How to balance those two interests? Should I even try?

There were a couple of points the older boys made that I am going to work on: one scene of David’s early days at Saul’s fortress was a bit slow to get going and another piece of character motivation wasn’t clear. I’ll look at the battle and army scenes to see how I might expand them a bit to show more detail.

But what to do with Saul?

I’m going to keep him and stop calling the book “middle grade” and call it “young adult.” Saul and David are perfect foils for each other. Their stories start out identically, but because of who they are and what they bring to the table, their stories diverge dramatically. All that time David spends playing for Saul and overhearing Saul’s ramblings teach David a great deal about how not to be king. The interplay between the two is where the story is meaty for me. If the older kids didn’t object, I think I’d do better to keep Saul and stop aiming it at the younger side of the age range.

Maybe that might even entice potential agents to ask for a full. At my stage in publishing, I’m querying literary agents with a descriptive letter and however much of the manuscript they like to see in order to get someone to ask for the full ms. I haven’t gotten even one request.

Humbling: Repeated rejection.

On the one hand, this isn’t surprising. Rejection is par for the course. I’ve been rejected for other projects many times without it bothering me this much. Except that I know this book is good. Not perfect, but good. Really good. We’ll see whether calling it YA will garner any more interest. If not, I’ll be doing a lot of research on self-publishing and searching for a good cover designer.

Rubber, Meet Road

Today, I did something I’ve never done before: I gave my writing to a kid to read. Not just a kid, but one of my own kids and a bunch of others, all of whom I know. These are some opinionated kids who read a lot, so I’m thinking that they won’t be shy about telling me they were bored (fingers crossed that they won’t be).

Now is when I discover whether what I’ve worked on so hard for the last 14 months does what I set out to do: novelize the story of David and Saul so a kid can experience it with a level of excitement that approaches Percy Jackson or Harry Potter. Note that I said “approaches.” I may be confident in my writing, but I’m not delusional.

This is where the rubber meets the road, the s#*! hits the fan, and any other cliche you can think of. I’ll put my plastic shield up and wait for their responses.