In a basement auditorium on a small historic campus, one of my grad-school professors — an editor of a venerable literary journal — was giving a public reading of an essay he had written.
While this professor made no proclamation of faith, he taught me something about Christian testimonies, as well as how and why to talk about myself.
My professor’s essay moved into a critique of a popular New York Times columnist who has a habit of using the word we when talking about the things that happen as a result of U.S. foreign policy.
The columnist would say things like, “We already fund this country,” and “We already have strained diplomatic relations with that country.”
The professor eventually paused and asked, “Who is this we?”
I took his point; I took it severely.
For me, there would be no more writing with “we” and no more abstractions about what we all think and do.
I realized that a personal, first-person account is all I have to offer. I can’t speak for others.
The world is too diverse for me to suppose I’m on the same page with everyone else — even those with whom I might agree about foreign policy.
I then worked hard to change my habit. My writing — and my points made in conversation — would be made in terms of stories about what I had experienced and I had observed.
No generalizations. Instead, stories: personal and concrete.
Of course, this presented me with a problem.
When attempting the write, I could make great strides forward by focusing on what I knew best: myself and my experiences.
Then again, I constantly ran the risk of making conversations sound like they were about me. Often, I have perceived that I was being heard as someone who is talking about himself.
Not a comfortable feeling. Not a winning plan for extended conversations, either.
I’m plenty human and full of myself, but after the “we” epiphany in grad school, my intention in talking about myself wasn’t always to communicate something about me — the point often was to illustrate something I thought was bigger than my own story.
I was referring to something that I suspected to be broadly relevant if not universal, while I could not claim a broad or universal grasp.
When I suspect my experiences are legitimate points of reference for another person or an organization with which I am affiliated, I want to tell my story.
I suspect my experiences could very easily be experienced by other people. Communities and groups and individuals could make the conceptual and practical decisions that could lead to my previous experiences, bad and good.
But, having taken my professor’s point rather severely, I usually try to avoid making my observations outside of a personal story.
The advantage is that true stories have a kind of absoluteness to them — this really happened, and it happened to me. No one is thought to be a pompous, self-absorbed bore when he says, “Every time I eat at that restaurant, I get sick!” And that’s not open for debate, either.
I might even be able to learn from someone else’s true story, if I think about how it might relate to me.
Which brings us — hard to avoid, isn’t it? — to personal testimonies of the Christian variety.
Christian conversion stories are the perfect examples of the universal within the particular.
In the Christian faith, the self-sacrificing Creator reaches out for a restored relationship with the human race — a universal call of redemption.
How each person responds to that call, to that extended hand, differs from believer to believer — each one has a particular, individual story.
A month or two ago, I listened to the testimonies of a dozen or so people who had recently completed confirmation classes at Trinity. It was an enriching experience to hear so many different stories — different responses to God’s call, different life circumstances.
So, in a way, sharing the Christian story kind of is about you — you have the story only you can tell, and that might just be the story someone else needs to hear.
There’s a good way to talk about yourself. Your subjective, personal story is more compelling than grand generalizations. Try to sidestep that “we” and speak for yourself.
By the way, a few days after the professor asked about “this we,” I was in a seminar with him.
When I had an opportunity to speak, I complimented him on his reading, and said something like, “We learned a lot that could help us with our writing.”