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Who am I? Who are we?

3 October 2021

Who am I? Who are we?

Looking to God to find a balance in life

Words Dean Simpson

“Me. We.” These two words are attributed to the great boxer Muhammad Ali, who throughout his career was known for his poetic prowess as much as his ability in the ring.

Ali was at the peak of his popularity in 1975 when he was invited to speak to a gathering of Harvard students. Before he stepped down from the podium, one of the students shouted: “Give us a poem, Muhammad.” Ali hesitated for a few seconds then looked up and bellowed: “Me. We.”

It has been listed as one of the greatest short poems. Essentially, however, it also raises two important questions: Who am I? Who are we?

Individualism has become one of the central themes of 21st century culture. Expressions of individualism are everywhere you look, primarily perpetuated by products and devices we use every day and advertising themes that support them.

We have the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Advertising slogans that happily effuse: ‘You’re No.1’, ‘It’s all about you’; and the poster child for contemporary individualism: the ‘selfie’.

There’s even a ‘Me Bank’.

Biblically, there is a valid ‘me’ – someone created by God in his image and known in relationship to him. In the Bible, Psalm chapter 46, verse 10 says, “Be still and know that I am God”. It is in his presence that we are defined, not by how others see us. In essence, there is a time for giving attention to oneself and the Bible invites us to do this in the loving presence of God for self-reflection.

So, who are ‘we’? The Bible, in Philippians chapter 2 and verse 3, it says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” In an era of individuality and, indeed, empowerment, I believe it is getting harder and harder to cultivate the ‘we’. However, I think there is a point at which the individual and collective come together. Human beings thrive on community. Despite the pressure to put yourself on a pedestal, in the end, we need each other.

Many years ago, my wife and I would spend a few hours every Friday doing a ‘pub run’ as part of our commitment to the Salvos. Dressed in full Salvos uniform, we would collect donations, hand out The Salvation Army War Cry magazine and generally spend time chatting to patrons.

One of them was Alf, an elderly chap of grumpy disposition. Alf spent most of his week at the end of a bar and generally kept to himself. However, whenever he saw my wife and me, his face would light up and we’d enjoy a brief chat.

One Friday, the bartender intercepted us as we walked in. He said Alf was in a distressed state and had been waiting for us all day. I walked over to him and the first thing he did was hug me and said, “I’m so glad to see you. I don’t know what to do. Can you please help me? My brother has died.”

Alf then described how he found his brother, his flatmate, dead in an armchair that morning. He had no idea what to do, so he went to the pub and waited for my wife and me.

My wife sat with him and consoled him with these words: “Alf, we can help you. We will work it out. You’re not alone. We are here for you now.”

The earlier verse, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” goes on to state: “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Muhammad Ali’s short poem has been dissected many times and has become even more relevant in recent times. I believe the two powerful words, “Me. We”, invoke the need for a balance in life – a time for self-reflection and a time for showing compassion for others.

Whatever Ali meant by his poem, the Bible affirms it is important to have ‘me’ times where we find our worth and, therefore, ‘we’ are able to forge a connection to others.

Dean Simpson is part of the Communications team for The Salvation Army Australia.


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