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Word Choice and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Random people (i.e. my various relatives) often give me suggestions for blog posts. Something funny happens while we’re on vacation together — “you should write about this”. Some other fiasco occurs several seconds later — “add this to the story!” they squeal.

I recently received one such suggestion (though we were just out for dinner, not jet-setting around the world). I brushed it off, as I tend to — “please, I have plenty to write about without your help, thank you very much,” I thought. Then I got home and realized that while I do have plenty of ideas, I haven’t really gotten around to sharing them with you so much lately, dear people of the internet. And so, I bring to you to my dinner conversation from two weeks ago.

We were discussing a person whom I… dislike and want to avoid seeing. I believe these sentiments surfaced around the same time I was born — he is not a pleasant person to be around. (And no, not in a Mr.-Darcy-at-the-beginning-of-P&P kind of way, more in an weird-annoying-obnoxious-but-pretty-much-harmless-uncle kind of way. Anyways.)

“You’re still afraid of him?” my Post-Suggesting Relative asked.

“Well, it isn’t that I’m afraid of spiders” I said, “I just don’t like them.”

He was awed and shocked and impressed with my retort (as I hope you were) and suggested I write a post about this altercation. Cue eye roll and the rest.

Then I thought about it and realized the profundity of my retort. The post-worthiness of it.

All of life, it occurs to me, is just semantics. Our of understanding of the world, of ourselves and of others comes from the words we use and choose to think about them with. Effective communication depends on shared vocabulary, with words that have the same denotations and connotations to all parties. Unlike Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984, modern English has a plethora of synonyms and sayings to choose from when we clothe our ideas in the words we think, say, and write.

The words with which you choose to express an idea give that idea different meaning than if you had expressed it in other words.

Thus, when I decide against something, I’ve been trying lately to express my decision (to myself and others) it in a way that it is just that — a conscious decision. It isn’t that I can’t clean my room — it’s that I choose not to. It isn’t that I can’t write at a given moment — I’m choosing not to. It isn’t that I can’t break school rules — I choose not to.

The effect is the same, but the cause becomes different. And by identifying and naming the true cause, I gain accountability and responsibility. It becomes a choice, because in the story I tell myself about my life, I am aware that it is a choice.

The same seems to hold true everywhere. My brother made a rude comment over the summer that I shouldn’t be afraid to go jet skiing. I tend to be one for irrational fears, and I was often teased for them in childhood. (Of course, it seems as though my siblings will never stop teasing me.)

But this time I had a rebuttal. I explained to my charming younger brother that I’m not afraid to jet ski. I’ve simply done it already and did not particularly enjoy it. Since it’s supposed to be for fun and I don’t find it to be such, why would I do it? So I choose not to.

Again, nothing actually changed, aside from the words through which I looked at the situation and therefore my entire perspective of the situation. And realizing this was so freeing. It took me from I can’t to I’m choosing not to. “And that,” as Robert Frost might say, “has made all the difference.”

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People Watching

Coming to you live from the top of a double decker in London. I love riding up here. It reminds me of Dead Poet’s Society — the scene where Mr. Keating has his students get up on his desk, explaining that they should constantly look at the world from a different perspective.

This is just like, that but on a greater scale. I think this view is far better and more interesting than looking down from a window in a tall building. From there, you can see the big picture, the context, the other buildings. From here you see the small, but to me more import, picture: people. It’s almost like watching a play: you’re removed enough from the action to observe the scenes unfolding, but close enough to still feel like you’re part of the action.

Of course, you only get a cursory view and judgement is completely superficial and based solely on a brief view of people’s appearances. But still, you see how people dress, how they walk, how they interact with each other. You get to be super creepy and blatantly stare at all the pedestrians, under the guise of politely looking out the window.

And because you’re surrounded by people, sitting very close to you in a contained place, you’re afforded another, equally intriguing, opportunity to observe people. You have to be more careful not to stare too blatantly at your fellow passengers — it gets super awkward if they look your way — but because you’re so close, you get to overhear lots of interesting conversations. Did you know British people actually say “bloody hell” and “cheers”, just like in movies? They do. They say both of these things in the same 3 minute phone call.

Whenever I have to chance to creepily watch people, I love entertaining myself by imagining their back stories. Are the married? Do they have kids? Are they school? What do they study? What kind of job do they have? Where are they on their way to? What’s their relationship with the person they’re with? Are they happy?

This probably makes me sound like Briony in Atonement by Ian McEwan — not believing that everyone else is as alive as me and making up my own stories about other people and such. But, it’s not like that. Really. I know I’m only getting half and quarter stories. I know that whatever I think of these people is biased and may be wrong. I have no faith that the stories I tell myself about them are real.

But, regardless of the flaws in the ideas I form, I cannot deny myself this pleasure. I’ve always loved looking around at the people around me. Perhaps it’s because I’m “a writer”. I guess that’s a pretty writer-ish thing to do. Observe the human condition, report it back through your own lens.

But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I just can’t resist. People are interesting. We watch plays and TV and read books to be entertained, but just sitting around listening to and watching real people can be even more entertaining.

Also, as opposed to Briony, who knows that everyone isn’t just as alive as she is, but just doesn’t feel it — and determines not to — I find this very obvious fact to be incredibly intriguing. Imagine, a whole world full of people who all see the differently from their own perspectives. Imagine getting a bunch of those people all on a bus together, all going their own way, subjectively stuck in their own heads, but doing so together? It’s invigorating. Everyone has their own story and to them, their’s is realest.

That’s my side of my story, anyway. What’s your side? Am I the only one who does this? Or are there other people who do this too? Come on other people like me, tell me I’m not alone.

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