Wednesday, October 5, 2011

'Us' and 'them' - becoming the one 'we'

When people write a book, they write for an intended audience. That becomes the 'we'. When they speak about 'we do this' and 'we do that' or 'we can do this', it is their intended audience that supposedly does or can do those things. For books that discuss the environment, the 'we' is sometimes American, usually from a western country and usually relatively wealthy And to a certain extent, this understandable. If authors tried to include everyone who might possible read their books, they may end up being able to say nothing about all.

But the 'we' or 'us' also has a 'them'. The 'us' is rich people in the western world. The 'them' is people living in developing and third world countries. And that is a very real 'us' and 'them'. The way we (you see, it's impossible to avoid it) live in the western world is vastly different to the way 'they' live in developing countries. That needs to be discussed and the differences need to be highlighted.

However, there are also problems with having an 'us' and 'them' division. The first is that the 'us' they describe is not just westerners, but wealthy westerners. I know myself that I am very definitely part of the 'us' group. And yet the 'us' they talk about seems to have lifestyles very different from my own. And I think the 'us' and 'them' idea can lead to the idea that all people living in the western world are wealthy, have enough to eat, a variety of clothes to wear and live in spacious homes with thermostats.

And yet that's not the case at all. Many people living in western countries, even (gasp) America, are struggling financially. Read Nickel and Dimed, for an example of the difficult situation many Americans find themselves in. And the problem is not just limited to America. There are people struggling in Australia too.  When we talk about 'us' and 'them' we must not fall into the trap of believing that everyone included in that 'us' is doing fine and it's only the 'them' that have problems. The 'us' includes some people who find it hard to afford food, clothing and shelter. They must not be forgotten somewhere between the 'us' and the 'them'.

Another problem with the 'us' and 'them' is that it creates a divide. The problems faced by those living in developing countries can be seen as 'their' problem, not ours. Yes, we may change our lifestyle, donate money and do a variety of other things to help them. But there is often the sense that we are helping 'them', not helping 'us' as a human race. It is seen as 'generosity' not 'responsibility'.  We lose sight of the fact that we are all human beings together. That 'us' and 'them' make up the same 'we'.

And imagine if we broadened the 'us' out even further. Humans often tend to think of a division in the world we live in. There is the 'us' of human beings and then there is the 'they' of all non-human elements of this earth. But imagine if we got rid of the 'us' and 'them' and started thinking mainly in terms of 'we'. The tree outside my house belong to the same 'we' that I belong to, for we are all part of the earth community. It is not 'other' but 'us'.

We live in a very individualistic society. And again, who is the we I am speaking of here? Obviously human. Presumably westerners. And even then, western countries encompass a wide range of different cultural groups. Are they all individualistic? I suspect not.

Let's just say that I have a very individualistic worldview. Forget about the 'us', I tend mainly to think in terms of 'me'. It's very hard to lose sight of that 'me' and concentrate on any 'us'. To remove the focus from myself and place it on the greater whole sometimes makes me feel like my head is about to explode.

Sometimes, but not always. For instance, my family is an 'us'. When people ask me how my family is doing, I don't try to separate each person out. I may talk about problems or joys that the whole family has had together. Or I might speak about problems or joys that belong to one particular person in the family. But it is still an 'us'. When my son is going through something, in a way, the whole family is going through that same something. We all share in it together.  

Another time when I forget about the 'me' is when I am out in nature. Being out in nature often makes me forget about myself. The 'me' disappears. Instead, I become part of the 'we' of everything I see around me. I think one reason why spending time in nature is so relaxing is because it does change our focus from the 'me' to the 'us'. And losing sight of the 'me' is good for our souls.      

But if we are to embrace the 'us', then it must include everyone. That's not just the people you like or the people you have compassion for. It includes climate change deniers, wealthy capitalists and polluters.

One of my favourite parts of the bible is when Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he intends to visit his house. As a tax-collector, Zacchaeus was like the person who today pays his employees slave wages and dumps all his pollutants into the river. You can just imagine the disciples thinking, no, Jesus, you've got it wrong. He's not one of 'us', he's one of 'them'.

But Jesus doesn't let there be a 'them'. There is only 'us' with Jesus. Yes, we have our differences. It is not only the tree outside my house or the climate change sceptic that is different to me, it is only my son who has inherited many of my (good and not so good) characteristics. But we have been focused on those differences for so long that we have forgotten we are all part of the greater whole. We need to stop thinking about 'me' or even a narrowly defined 'us' and think of a 'us' that encompasses everyone.

It is this 'us' that needs to live together. It is the good of this greater 'us' that we should be aiming for. And it is this 'us' that Jesus came to save.

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