J u s t T h i n k i n g
Some days you’re just thinking along and something gels. Here are some of those moments for me.
A Pedant’s (Warranted) Rant
A Pedant’s (Warranted) Rant
Only one thing in human life matches the contagion and lethality of a virus: language.
And ‘like’ and ‘so’ are now killers. As with viruses, they are fine in one context and deadly in another.
‘Like’ and ‘so’ are great when they mean what they mean, such as ‘therefore’ and ‘similar to’ (or any of their multiple other true meanings). But somehow, with a particular stealth with which only words can move, these two words have become pariahs for anyone who cares about eloquence, or even competence, in forming a sentence.
I’ve been wincing in the presence of these hitchhikers for years. But I began to rail when recently I noticed their viral creep cropping up on NPR and PBS. I thought those beloved networks were fortresses of erudition, training, practice and editing that could ensure some public respite from this habit of ‘like’ and ‘so’ that is dazedly acquired and soporifically spread. But no. There they are. ‘Like’ and ‘so’. I can hardly listen.
What, for example, do people mean when they are asked a question and they begin the answer with ‘So’?
‘Can you tell us, please, John, how you managed to make this discovery?’
‘So, what happened was…’
And what do people mean when they are describing something and they just throw in ‘like’?
‘I was just sitting there, and this like startling thing happened.’
‘I was just sitting there, and this startling thing like happened.’
What is that word doing there? I’ll tell you what it’s doing there. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It is padding. It is the fallback of an indolent speaker. Or an unconscious captive of crass convention.
Now I know, and I honour the fact, that language morphs. That’s its job. And we wouldn’t have Shakespeare without it. But language is only a product of humans. And so we have masses of power over it. In fact it is the captive. We are the captains. We behave, however, as if we were cheap-language-change prey. We’re not. And I think it is time we stood tall and said no. No more ‘so’ and ‘like’ inflicted randomly on an innocent and and potentially fine sentence.
Yes, you can argue that the use of ‘so’ in this meaningless context actually replaces ‘well’ in our parlance, and that people like me were not having a fit about ‘well’ for all those years. Well (actually), we were. We just didn’t say so. And now we are. ‘Well’ is just as bad as ‘So’. It is filler.
So (therefore) what I want to know is, why can’t we just start a sentence where it starts? And what would be so (to such a great extent) difficult about saying only what we mean?
‘Can you tell us please, John, how you managed to make this discovery?’
‘I was in the forrest and suddenly…’
‘I was just sitting there, and this startling thing happened.’
Those have power and punch, and pulchritude of a sort.
I guess, if I absolutely have to, I can live with ‘So’. Just. Maybe. No, probably not.
But I cannot bear any longer ‘like’ dumped into sentences randomly and vapidly. At least ‘So’ to begin a sentence could be said to mean: ‘Get ready; I am about to take off with my reply.’ (As if we didn’t know that already.) Completely superfluous and weakening, but not 100 % meaningless.
‘Like’, on the other hand, is 100% meaningless.
So (therefore), I have a proposition: Could you humour me and go cold turkey, just for a month, never using ‘So’ to mean ‘Well’, and never using ‘like’ to mean, well (as I just said), nothing at all?
I just wonder whether we could finally throw off these two viral trespassers, and return our sentences to confident, seamless streams of meaning?
Let me know how it goes. I will be like waiting.
I really must write to NPR and PBS.
I’m not a fan of acceptance. It is highly regarded, I know. I’ve been reading about it again (it crops up everywhere) in a 20th century devotional, enjoining us to accept suffering, ‘nay to embrace it’, as the only sure path to God’s grace, and to the only sure joy: the after-death variety.
It’s been that kind of week.
But I also encounter this injunction to accept suffering during much saner weeks and in completely uncalcified places. It has a big following. People even take classes in it and practically march in philosophical, spiritual streets for it.
But I don’t buy it. Not as an emotional state to aspire to.
Yes, if it is the acceptance of external circumstances in this moment for what they actually are – denial begone – then fine. Good. Great. March.
But if it is the acceptance of some ‘inevitable’ inner emotional state in response to those circumstances; if it is ‘making peace’ with keen discomfort, or fear, or grief or worry because ‘that feeling is natural in these circumstances’ and so in these circumstances we have no agency, no power, no way to dissipate those feelings? Forget it.
Humans are hardwired to face what is verifiably real, to accept it (on the road to changing it when possible), to express vigorously whatever un-joyful feelings arise in the facing of it, to find and replace any untrue assumptions that have given rise to those feelings and then fairly quickly to regain joy.
Joy is the natural default, the built-in state of the human being. Woe is only a natural response to threatening circumstances (or to the lived-as-true untrue assumption of threatening circumstances). Woe as a natural response is intended to be acknowledged honestly and expressed fully and then, its expression having produced healing, it is to be on its way, replaced vigorously by joy.
If I sound confident about this, I am. If nothing else, current medical understanding of the human immune system tells us all we need to know about joy. Joy produces immunity. Woe depletes it. Joy, therefore, lengthens life. Woe shortens it. Joy we must embrace. Woe we must replace.
So our job, it seems to me, is not to accept woe as even an occasionally decreed state. Our job is to dislodge it and return to joy. Then our job is to negotiate any real threat, meet its challenges and reconfigure our lives.
Simply put, there is nowhere in the human design an inevitable requirement of victimhood. Even the victimhood of acceptance of woe. There is instead (and wonderfully) the built-in inner power to regain inner power. The power, as Wendell Berry said, to ‘choose joy, having considered all the facts’.
William Blake said it, too:
Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.
Life loves fine lines. And this is one.
Like you most likely I grew up with this warning, ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.’ Almost all the grownups around me said that and then promptly believed everything they read in the papers. As far as I can tell, 70 years later, they still do.
Of course now ‘the papers’ are the flailing, ever-regenerating Hydra heads astride the Hades of online fed ‘news’. And there is no Hercules among us to hack off and cauterise them.
This monster is bad enough. But there lurks among us an even deadlier Hydra. We can see it in this warning:
‘Don’t read everything you believe in the papers.’
It is one thing to believe everything you read. It is another to read everything you believe.
This is how it works: I wake up. I feel for my phone, turn it over, open my news feeds. I read. I relax. My feeds comfort me. They confirm what I believe. Everything I believe. I chose them for that purpose. I read them again. It’s all there.
I get up, get dressed to their audios, return to their videos. They repeat, replenish themselves, remind me of who I am. I don’t look further. I don’t find feeds that ignore my beliefs or question them. I enter only the houses of my own gods, take a seat, turn to my favourite hymn, sing, kneel, and shake hands with the feeder on the way out.
But – I fear. All around me, hovering, misting, swarming are spectres of difference. I bat them away, blow them away, shoo them; but they regroup. And my hydra grows three heads for every one. I believe harder, I feed harder, I return harder to re-read my beliefs in the ‘papers’ because the ‘papers’ are bigger than me, more credible than me, louder than me. And as long as they say everything I believe, everything I believe is safe.
Reading everything we believe –
that is the entrance to the Hades of our age.