Shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama: Populate Our Language with Plurals

This is part of an ongoing series on my month shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and leader of The Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To read the rest of the series, click here


Once, when Pádraig spoke of faith expressions in Northern Ireland, he used the word “Christianities.” “This is important language,” he explained. “There really is no such thing as Christianity as a singular identity.”

More than once I heard Pádraig say, “We need to populate our language with plurals.” Singular language often impoverishes our understanding of issues and ideas.

A few years ago, I interviewed Jacob Davis for my book Where the River Bends. Jacob is a good friend incarcerated in Tennessee for first-degree murder. We spoke about forgiveness, and at one point he said with passion, “The man I am now didn’t do it! The person who did do it wasn’t in a normal state. So if I forgive myself, I forgive my old self. Identity is quite slippery.”

Jacob understood, like Pádraig, that we are all multitudes, and we hold complexity within us. Once, when Pádraig I discussed toxic masculinity driving from Belfast to Corrymeela, he said, “We’d be wise to talk of toxic masculinities; masculinity isn’t a monolith.”

I am thinking too of the story in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus exorcises the demons from the possessed man in the country of the Gerasenes. When he asks the man his name, the man replies, “Legion, for we are many.” In addition to the political commentary of the name Legion, perhaps Mark tells the story this way to teach us something of identity: namely, that there is no identity; there are only identities. For we are many.

The magnificent Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks of the danger of single stories in her remarkable TED Talk. She tells that single stories are stories that depict only one side to a person or an event. These stories are damaging because they produce stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue necessarily, but rather that they are incomplete. There’s always more to the story.

We forget this sometimes, especially in times of division. One of the first casualties in any conflict is nuance. It’s much easier to fight something or someone when you can use simple, unflattering definitions. And yet, Pádraig, Jacob, Legion, and Chimamanda all know better—and I think the rest of us do too.

Populating our language with plurals may help us remember that we are all multitudes. Even the person we think we totally understand—we don’t. Our simple, un-nuanced, stereotypical ways of speaking need always to be further complicated.

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