by Bro. Albert Garong, SSP
How long can you write in the English language without using the letter I?
Not too long, probably. Or even if you get far, it would require much thought, effort, and a very robust thesaurus.
I is one of only five vowels. Still, if taken away, thousands of our words are lost with it. I is also the narrowest letter in the alphabet. It doesn’t take much space. It can sit with the fat Os and Bs, the wide Ms and Ws, and still leave room for a few more letters. Among letters, I seems to demand the least.
It’s fitting to consider what the letter I most often stands for: me, you. Every one of us is the I of our own story. As an individual you are important beyond measure. Without you, there is no hero in the center of your narrative. Without I, how does your story even begin?
But a story full of I, full of the self, is dreadful. Have you ever met a blowhard who can’t stop harping about his summer trip to Korea? Or remember your unbearable classmate who turns every issue into her own drama? (“We have to fight global warming! I can’t sleep without aircon!”)
Go ahead. Roll your eyes.
They just suck the air out of the room, don’t they? That’s the problem with too much of I. When one demands more than what one needs, when a person assumes the space meant for others, when the I acts like it’s more important than the other characters, or that it’s the only character, it’s never good. It’s harmful to others—and to oneself.
Pope Francis: The I and the You
Earlier this year, when Pope Francis was invited to talk at TED, a famous (and nonreligious) conference for intellectuals and creatives, he had a simple reminder for them: “We all need each other. None of us is an island, an autonomous and independent I.”
For the Pope, a big problem today comes from a society obsessed with the I, the self, making it difficult to see other people as human persons, with their own feelings and problems and stories to live and to tell.
This is no more evident than in the “culture of waste” that we live by today. Nowadays, waste isn’t just a material problem, but a human one. Think of the refugees dying in overcrowded boats, drowning at sea because no country wants them. Think of the thousands of murdered Filipinos and the tens of thousands who approve and even cheer for it. Think of the millions of aborted babies around the world, killed not by criminals but by their own mom and dad.
People nowadays might as well be garbage because of our lack of concern for them; or, rather, because we are more concerned with ourselves. Today the bottomline is the I: myself. It’s all about my convenience, my safety, my dreams and aspirations. We only see the world through our own needs, so we can dispose of others when they don’t serve our purpose. After all, if it’s a choice between my life and the other’s, I’ll choose mine, right?
Pope Francis reminds us that there is a better way, built by remembering the opposite of I: “The future is made of yous. It is made of encounters, because life flows through our relations with others . . . The future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a “you” and themselves as a part of an “us.” We all need each other.”
In a word, this is empathy, and it is the silver bullet to the monstrous I. We must recover our ability to feel for others, to imagine their joy and feel their pain, to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and ask: what is his or her story? It is the only way we see each other as human, and thus start to care beyond the self and not see others as simply means to our end. This is the only antidote to the culture of I: a culture of solidarity, built by recognizing that even as we are a society of Is, we can only truly prosper if each I genuinely cared for the other. We can only move forward together, without leaving anyone behind, or none at all.
But where can you begin? Start with small acts of selflessness. Pick up that candy wrapper in the hallway, choose jokes that don’t make fun of others, turn off the lights and fans when no one’s using them, pat a classmate on the back or even just say hi. These things may not change the world, but it changes you.
If you start there, the world will not be far behind.