This post isn’t about Adam from the book of Genesis, or even Jesus’ declaration of “I am,” although there are meaningful connections that could be made with both of those topics. I am instead referring to the everyday use of first-person pronouns. The intentions here are to reflect on some aspects of the first person, to suggest mystical significances in doing so, and to explore some very practical implications for life in this world. (Just in case a little refresher on grammar would be helpful, the singular first-person pronouns are I, me, my, mine, and myself, and the plural first-person pronouns are we, us, our, ours, ourselves.)
One of the first things about this topic that might come to mind for many of us is some idea about the illusoriness of the self. Many mystical teachers and traditions suggest if not explicitly declare that self, or at least our understanding of self as a separate entity, is an illusion. In this view, the words me and I refer only to abstract ideas of personhood arising and disappearing in the ever-changing field of Existence Itself. In other words, I have no essence unique to me, no independent existence of my own. In Christianity, this view may be found in a number of scriptures, including Acts 17:28 and Galatians 2:20. Furthermore, it is often asserted that the mistaken belief in the self as an objectively real and permanent entity is the primary or most significant obstacle to the greatest liberation and peace, the deepest wisdom and understanding. It is considered such a tremendous obstacle because so much energy is required to defend and maintain its illusory concreteness amid the unceasing reality of change, and because it is the most central point of our attempted refusals to accept impermanence in all its forms. It is the common thread running through all the other illusions we strive to weave and maintain.
What might be done with these observations? To some minds, the illusion of self is considered nothing but a barrier that must be overcome, or a distraction to be ignored. One person I know has developed a disciplined practice of never using the first-person singular; he always refers to himself in the third person, just as he would any other person. Among other people, the illusion of self is seen as a necessary part of this ongoing work of art we call Creation, a dynamic which permits the emergence of an unlimited diversity of individual perspectives and relatively independent co-creators to assist in unfolding the possibilities of this ever-changing field of Existence Itself. In almost any case, speaking in the first-person can be regarded as an opportunity to remember the illusion of self, and thus include that awareness in mindfulness of the present moment. One positive effect of such awareness is its capacity to facilitate a greater acceptance of change and one’s involvement in it.
But what might this line of thought suggest in the more specific context of Christian mysticism? I want to begin addressing that question from the centrality of love.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 1 John 4:16
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:37-40
These two verses, among many others, reveal the interconnectedness of all humans with each other and with God, who is Love itself. They highlight that we most realize this oneness in and through love, and not only through thoughts and feelings of love, but also through action.
To return to the theme of this post, let’s recall that speech is an important form of action. Many of us were raised with an old saw that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While we can sincerely appreciate the value of this as a lesson about not overreacting to words, we also cannot deny the immense power that words do indeed have in this world. The speaking and writing of words are actions for transmitting thoughts and evoking feelings among other souls. Words are therefore among the most direct and intimate of ways that we touch the lives of others. They can lead to war, facilitate peace, communicate admiration and affection, encapsulate agreements, define partnerships, inflame passions, push people to the edge of suicide or bring them back from it, soothe hurting hearts, cool hot heads, and express awe and praise. When we are honest with ourselves about the power of words, we know their use carries great responsibility.
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. Matthew 12:36-37
The significance of words and the power of language are so profound that we even call Christ “the Word.”
In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1
We should not take words too lightly, but instead recognize that they are a form of action we are called to execute with love. This call has direct relevance to our use of the first person, not only in reminding ourselves that the first-person singular doesn’t refer to some entity apart from God and our fellow human beings, but also in acknowledging that all forms of the first-person plural accentuate our unity without denying our diversity. We are humanity. We are God’s children in God’s own womb. A very meaningful aspect of this realization is that it makes the objectification of the second and third person – you, your, yours, yourself, they, their, theirs, themselves – as impossible as it does for the first person. In effect, it tends to make us more wary of any movement into language that plays into the dichotomizing illusions of me versus you or us versus them. There is no one who does not belong.
In this light, it is important for us to speak in the first-person plural as often as possible, evoking awareness of diversity-in-unity, and especially when we are being critical. To speak this way does not require a denial of difference or an evasion of accountability among particular individuals or groups. It does, however, challenge me to see within myself the potential for anything that I might identify as sinful, sick, or problematic in another person or group. This shift of perspective is automatically a step into empathy and compassion, and perhaps even into forgiveness and healing (making whole again). Instead of speaking of “them,” and their shortcomings, I can speak of mine as common examples. Instead of speaking of a solution that I have for them, we can speak together of how we would like things to be different and what we can all do to help things change.
Dear friends, may we allow the mystical awareness of diversity-in-unity to transform our minds and renew us such that we speak in more loving ways. May we increasingly overcome the temptation to speak in ways that foster illusions that encourage Christians of one sort to be at war with Christians of another sort. Even further, may we become ever more mindful and cherishing of the beautiful diversity-in-unity of all humanity and, in doing so, more fully and clearly express the loving will of God.