Archive for the ‘Words’ Tag

The Tyranny of “should”

It’s amazing to me how much meaning, import, weight, significance and worth can be bound up in a single word. What’s more, it’s at least doubly deep because all that meaning and worth has at least equal proportions of negative import and anti-meaning and measures of antithetical worth. And when all that density and mass of meaning is contrasted with the brevity and ordinariness of a small word, the impact of this recognition can be devastating.

Words like “family” and “love” and “happiness” can have this heaviness and can even be wielded as weapons. But for the most part, at least in my experience, the majority of the unnatural weight of these words comes from within the person who feels that weight as it is applied to them. Internal criticism and insecurity can lend this extraordinary significance to simple words.

But it’s the words with in-built judgement that have the greatest density and gravity and danger. Words like “normal” and “too” and “must” and “enough” and “should”. The culture and society in which any of these words are used have a lot to do with how sharp and powerful their density is. It is true that these words can be just a susceptible to the voice of individual insecurity. But these words, by passing society’s sentence over the object of these words, take on a monstrous degree of weight and power disproportionate to their size and ordinary linguistic importance.

Speaking from my own experience, “should” is the worst offender. Though it is a lowly auxiliary word, a verb form used to modify a main or dominant verb, it has no independent purpose, is always beholden to the main action word to have meaning and value. But cultural and social context synergizes it with secondary meaning and characteristics, magnifying its power. And when that magnified weight is used in anger or other ill intent, it becomes a destructive force that even brutally blunt adjectives can only inadequately describe.

“You should not be…”, “You should just…”, “You should have…”, “You should [do/think/believe/feel]…”, and countless other predicate phrases can be annoying, even rage-inducing when used to impose the speaker’s will on the recipient without regard to the recipient’s agency. Person to person, this can be anything from a mildly negative to a truly horrific experience. But these imperatives become tyrannical when wielded by a system of power to oppress marginalized people under the crushing weight of their unreasonable expectations.

Some examples, all taken from conversations I’ve either witnessed or been a part of in the last few weeks, may help clarify what I’m going on about:

  • “Women should look like women. They should make an effort to look good, feminine.”
  • “People should be required to take better care of themselves, be healthier, lose weight and exercise. Fat people put a greater strain on social systems and should be made to do something about it.”
  • “You should stop worrying about what other people think. You shouldn’t let anyone else tell you how to feel.”
  • “People with money shouldn’t get to whine and play the stress or anxiety card. They should be happy with what they’ve got. What could they have to be depressed about?”
  • “You should be happier, smile more.”
  • “You shouldn’t have any trouble sleeping and shouldn’t be sad. You have a lot to be thankful for, more than most people do.”
  • “You should just shrug it off, let it go. You shouldn’t care so much.”

See what I mean? Even though these dictates were imposed in private conversations, they also appear in the world at large as part of a number of systemic power structures. These same sentiments form the basis of expectations underlying some of the most erosive, caustic social constructs, from misogyny and patriarchy to racism and xenophobia.

When “should” becomes the driver, the metric, and the adjudicator, the power dynamic of that word no longer reflects a reality of free will. Instead, conformity and rebellion alike become matters of safety and survival, not mere choice. And when a person can’t live up to the “should”, the guilt, shame and disappointment are not just overly-dramatic emotional responses, but are catalytic forces with unpredictable potency.

I don’t know where I am going with this post. I have no orderly resolution or inspirational message to impart. It’s just been weighing on my mind and heart and I wanted to put it out in the ether in hopes of feeling some relief from the sharing.

Small Words

I find words fascinating. There are so many words that mean almost but not quite the same thing. Subtlety, nuance in spoken and written word thrill my inner word nerd. Picking the right word and saying it in just the right way…nirvana! Rhythm, assonance, rhyme, cadence, timber and tone are all facets of verbal mastery, and I adore the chase for that perfection.

Ever since I was the pesky little sister and my older brothers found peace while babysitting by handing me a dictionary and requiring me to learn ten new words before I could ask any more questions, I’ve been hooked on words. Big or small, rare or common, words are the keys to unlock a universe of possibilities. Of course, words can create whole new worlds to explore right in the comfort of your own mind or in the pages of a favorite book. But the same words, assembled in different ways, can form a love sonnet, a letter of rejection, a pledge of allegiance, or a declaration of war. Words are versatile and powerful and…fascinating.

Four years of studying Latin gave me an appreciation for the roots of the English language and an ability to decipher linguistic patterns and puzzles. I’ve been fortunate to build a broad and varied vocabulary through study at all levels of my education, as well as through observation in daily life. Learning and using new words or learning to use old words in new ways is almost a sport for me.

Law school was both a pleasure and torturous when it came to my love of words. It was a joy to learn amazing new terms and unique and specialized uses for old stand-by words. But law professors delight in squeezing every ounce of literary and linguistic creativity out of you, forcing you to write and speak in the simplest and fewest words possible. It was a valuable, yet painfully paradoxical, lesson in communication.

Part of that ‘less-is-more’ mind-set still lingers. I may stray into the verbose, using complex sentences in this blog. (It is, after all, my special spot to park all the thoughts boiling in my brain.) But I still appreciate simple words and short sentences. Clear communication is always my goal. That’s part of why I’ve developed a love of small words.

Oh, it’s definitely fun to use complex, multi-syllable words…they’re great tools for wow-ing some, confusing others and confounding foe and friend alike. But there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to say exactly what you mean, using simple, plain words.

Small words have big impact, big power. Some of the most powerful word combinations I have ever experienced are short, plain sentences of only a few small words:

I love you.
I wish you were here.
You are strong.
Please help me.
Be still.
You matter.
It gets better.
I’m here for you.
We can do it together.
You are right.
I miss you.
I need you.
You make me smile.
I was wrong.
I’m sorry.

One of the reasons I’ve taken such a liking to Twitter is that the 140-character limit forces me to express myself succinctly. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have a new-found appreciation for micro-poetry, for much the same reason. Simple direct communication is a gift. Speaking your thoughts, sharing your feelings in plain words is a powerful form of intimacy. People respond to pure expression. I love that!

So, join me…let’s go use some small words to say some big things.

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