Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Power of Personal Pronouns

Commencement Address - November 3, 2012 - Trinity Western University

 It was January 19, 2006, a Thursday.  Vancouver was chilly, but not really cold.  And it was dry for a change.  All in all, not a bad day for the “Wet Coast”.  I had no warning that it would be a critically important day in my life. 

It was the day I was told I had Parkinson’s disease.  I was 53 years old, at the height of my legal career.  I was doing what I loved and felt that I was making a difference, like leading the Trinity Western legal team and its successful battle all away to the Supreme Court of Canada..  I was part of a thriving law firm and a tremendous team of legal professionals, trusted problem solvers working with the best clients any lawyer could ask for.

Life had not been without incidents, but none of them had left permanent scars.  I had experienced an idyllic upbringing in the countryside apple orchards near Vernon, British Columbia.  My parents were the best I could have asked for.  My siblings and extended family put up with me more than most would have done.  In 1970, God brought me to what was then Trinity Junior College, where I found a much deeper faith, a love for learning, an opportunity to serve in student leadership and a chance to play collegiate sports, not to mention meeting the wonderful woman that I have now been happily married to more than 38 years.  I had three kids, each of whom has been a special gift to us.  In addition, I had, and still have, wise and caring mentors like Dr Jim Houston and Benno Friesen.  I had, and still have, friends who I knew I could depend on, regardless, and lifelong accountability partners in David Bentall and Carson Pue.

Life had been pretty much a dream come true until that day in 2006.  When Renae and I walked out of the neurologist’s office that day, I was surprisingly calm (maybe in full-blown denial, but calm).  I somehow knew something special was in process.  My life was not a dream that was becoming a nightmare.  Certainly, there was fear, but there was also excitement and anticipation.  I felt totally inadequate for the challenges that lay ahead, but I also felt completely at peace.  Somehow, I knew God was in this.  He was opening my eyes in ways I could never have imagined, providing perspective and opportunities that could only be achieved through my loss, my weakness, my failure.

January 19, 2006, was the day I began to learn a secret: the difference between illness and wellness.  Let me come back to that.

I had known a fair amount about Parkinson’s disease before 2006.  My father had suffered from the disease, and ultimately died from its complications in 2009.  It’s a complicated disease, and every one of its 10 million “victims” worldwide seems to experience it differently.

Besides being a progressively, degenerative, neurological disease for which there is no known cure it has a variety of debilitating manifestations.  Its most typical symptoms are a tremor, stiffness, loss of balance, a shuffling gait and other motor malfunctions.  But along with those are a kaleidoscope of potential non-motor consequences such as incredible fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and possibly, the scariest of all, loss of cognitive function.  And then, as if to add variety, there are unusual side effects for some people with Parkinson’s.  For instance, my startle reflex became heightened, I stopped swinging my right arm when I walked, and I lost my sense of smell.  For others, they develop an emotionless blank stare called the Parkinson’s mask, or their speech becomes slurred and other unmentionable functions don’t function so well.
But, as serious as these aspects of PD may be, there are other more soul-crushing things that I’ve learned about the disease.

Parkinson’s is a self-isolating disease.  In the beginning stages, it’s hard work to try and hide your tremor so that people won’t look at you wondering what’s wrong and why you’re shaking like a leaf in a hurricane.  As the disease progresses and the tremor can no longer be disguised, it can become just downright uncomfortable being around others.  Our society does not respond very well to people with sickness we can’t see, let alone those with visible illness and disability.  We just don’t know what to say to a person who is unable to control his shaking.
So for most people with PD it is much easier to be alone, avoiding the questioning stares of people who can’t really understand.
Big social gatherings demand a lot from people with Parkinson’s.  As the adrenaline starts pumping it somehow turns up the amplification on your tremor.  As the shaking increases, your self-confidence decreases and you look for a place to hide.

For many people with Parkinson’s, as with other diseases, their world shrinks.  Many prefer to be alone.  Others remain behind closed doors due to the lack of mobility, energy, interest or just because of embarrassment or inertia.

As I began to notice my own propensity to withdraw I began to listen to the words that people with Parkinson’s were using.  I began to see the importance of pronouns.

Let me try and demonstrate what I mean by requesting a little audience participation.

Before everyone heads for the exits, rest assured that what I will ask you to do is easy and not embarrassing.  Please help me out here.  Could everybody either close their eyes or focus on an inanimate object in the room.  I do not mean the person sleeping next to you!  Now say the word “I” out loud?  Next, could everyone say the word “you”?  Now, finally, could everyone say the word “we”?
As you spoke those words, what did you think about?  What did you feel?  For most of you, when you said “I” you thought about yourself.  And when you said “you”, you likely thought of a particular person.  You might’ve even visualized someone.  And when you said “we” you likely thought of some group that you identified with; people in this auditorium, family, teammates, dorm mates, classmates, friends.

In 2011, social psychologist and language expert, James Pennebaker, wrote “The Secret Life of Pronouns”.  It’s about what our language says about us.  But it also demonstrates the power of personal pronouns. 
“I”, “my”, “me” are three of the 20 most commonly used words in the English language.  Let’s just focus on “I”.  The word “I” is by far the most commonly used personal pronoun, and it’s moving up the list based on more current studies of word usage.

“I” is used considerably more (almost twice as much in some studies) by people who are depressed or insincere.  Conversely, it is not used very often by truly self-confident leaders.

Now that may seem logical, but not only does the use of particular pronouns tell you something about others (and yourself), but studies show that consciously reducing your use of words like “I”, “my” and “me” can improve the way you think and feel about yourself and the world around you.

Changing one’s personal pronoun usage is more difficult than you think.  Most people have an overwhelming propensity to want to talk about themselves.  Let me give you a recent example.  Carson Pue and I just completed a 75 day, six continent, 17 country, 50,000 km trip around the world.  At one point on the trip we were on the train from Cuzco, high up in the Peruvian Andes, to the extraordinary ruins of Machu Picchu.  Seated near us on the train were a number of younger travelers from Australia and England.
We decided to try an experiment.  The goal was to test how much we could get our fellow travelers to talk about themselves without disclosing virtually anything about ourselves.  By the end of the two hour train trip Carson and I knew virtually the whole life story of a number of the travelers seated next to us.  They knew virtually nothing about us.  No names, no life history, no special circumstances.

Try it sometime.  What you will find interesting is that the person you speak with goes away from the conversation enjoying the experience and thinking you are a great conversationalist.  Listen carefully to the language being used.  The person you are speaking to will typically use the pronoun, “I”, a great deal.  In asking questions of that person you will use the pronoun, “you”. 

How did we become so self-absorbed?  As with some of you, I was born into the postwar baby boomer “you can have it all” generation.  The generation that stood up against authority and insisted upon personal rights.  It was the generation that dropped out and disappeared into a dope induced, feel good, psychedelic haze.  It was the generation of “free love”, freedom to choose, live and let live, do your own thing.  It was the first recognizable “me generation”.  And every subsequent generation seems to have built upon that self-oriented foundation.

Case in point: Who would’ve guessed in the 1960s that the icon of our society, it’s most popular “smart” phone is called the… IPhone!

Consider the manifestations of “I”.  Self-importance, self-esteem, self worth, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self absorption and self service.  No wonder I thought the world was about me. 
What is the pronoun?  A “pronoun” is really nothing other than a shorthand/replacement for a name or names.  If you want to cut down on the number of times that you use the word “I” “me” or “my”, imagine that every time you use one of those pronouns you say your name.  For example, I might say in response to your question, “How are you?”: “I’m doing fine, thank you.  I just returned from my around the world trip that I did with my friend.  I had a fantastic time.”  Without pronouns my response becomes, “Bob is doing fine, thank you.  Bob just returned from Bob’s around the world trip that Bob did with Bob’s friend.  Bob had a fantastic time.”  It’s not hard to say who is the focus of that discussion!

Pronouns are perhaps the most powerful words in the English language.  Not only do they betray our thoughts and deepest convictions, they can shape our thinking.  Listen to someone speak.  How many times do they use the word “I”, “you”, or “we”?  Just using the word “I”, that single syllable pronoun, leads the listener and the speaker to think in certain ways.  “I” is exclusive.  “It’s all about me”.  “You” is also exclusive.  Only the word “we” is inclusive.  It draws a circle around us. 

In 1968 Harry Edward Nilsson III wrote a song that became a testimonial to our generation.  All too typical of our generation, he was raised by a single mom, his father having walked out on his family when Harry was three years old.  Harry left school after grade 9 and pursued a music career.  He became one of the most famous songwriters in America, sought after by the Beatles, Monkeys, and other well-known musicians, he became a two-time Grammy award winner.  But success took its toll.  Alcohol, drugs, failed financial investments, and ripoffs, seemed to lead to his death in 1994.  He was 53.  Same age I was diagnosed with PD.

One of the most famous songs that he wrote was composed in its entirety while he listened to the busy signal he got after calling a friend on the telephone.  That was before the age of call waiting, call display, voicemail, texting and email.  You might remember the song was later made famous by “Three Dog Night”.  Its lyrics are prophetically applicable today.  It expresses the loneliness and futility of life lived for oneself, the loneliness of “I”.

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
Two can be as bad as one
It’s the loneliest number since the number one
No is the saddest experience you’ll ever know
Yes, it’s the saddest experience you’ll ever know
One is the loneliest number”
This brings me to my closing remarks on graduation and balancing pronouns.  Consider these phrases:

1.    “I did it!”  And you did.  It took commitment to a goal, dedication and hard work, using the gifts and resources God gave you.

2.     “Thank you!”  You did not do it alone.  Others encouraged you, enabled you, helped you.  Humanly speaking, nothing good can ever be accomplished alone.  There are always others to be thanked.

3.     “We are in this together!”  Your graduating class is forever linked, joined together as a “we”.  It is very likely that members of your class will impact your future in remarkable ways.  And today you have joined more than 24,000 other graduates of Trinity Western.  We are the fruit of this university’s labor.  We are its alumni.  Trinity cannot thrive without its alumni.  We, together, will determine its future success.  We, together, must remain strongly rooted in the truth we learned here.  And we must reach out to serve the world around us.

Whether your future is filled with success or struggle, dignity or disaster, remember the power of personal pronouns.  And remember that God calls us to live in community, “we”.  Jesus could have done it alone.  He had no need for a mother and father, brothers and sisters.  No need for disciples who would constantly fail him.  No need for a church filled with people who constantly mess up the message.  But he modeled “we”.  He planned for us to be in community.

And the final lesson, one that I’m still learning, the change in thinking that started from my diagnosis almost 7 years ago and teaches me daily:

What is the difference between illness and wellness?

Illness begins with “I”.  But wellness starts with “we”.


  1. I love the illness vs. wellness idea - it's a mantra I'm going to adopt when I'm having a particularly tough slog. Sometimes you have to be willing to say, "Help." And that's a tough moment. Thank you for your post.

  2. When I was in high school One Is the Loneliest Number was on the radio one day as I was ordering a hamburger at a drive-in. To this day I remember hearing that song, and as a country bumpkin and literally thinking, I remember thinking, how the heck does a number become lonely. Years later with maturity I heard the song and immediately understood it. How it became popular with a bunch of "I" teenagers from the "me" generation is a miracle.