Growing up, I was blessed to have some truly remarkable English teachers (note: I didn’t say professors as unfortunately I took exactly 0 English classes in college. I know, the rigors of pre-medical science can distort one into thinking that English classes, if not necessary to graduate thanks to previously accrued AP credits, should be the last thing on one’s to-do list). Luckily, despite my limited exposure to the humanities in college, I was fortunate to have some amazing mentors and teachers at the bookends of my life. Amidst all of their wisdom, one concept for improving one’s writing has emerged: the need to eliminate words with minimal significance or words entirely devoid of any real meaning. For someone like myself, who enjoys the rambling sentence and struggles to find brevity within the brambles of flowering ideas, I have needed to hear this over and over and over again. Less is more! Trim, eliminate and trim some more!
Now, simply telling someone to eliminate, minimize or discard useless language is only one part of the journey, for actually UNCOVERING WHAT NEEDS TRIMMING and REMOVAL takes much more practice, reflection and judicious inquiry.
Over the past year, as part of my personal journey of distillation and refinement, I have sought to ruthlessly remove distractions, negative energy and toxic substances that pose a threat to my flourishing and have attempted to surround myself with only the most nourishing foods, people and spaces.
Now, this is certainly much easier said than done, but the rewards of engaging in such a process are, you guessed it, quite rewarding, Without attachment to the outcome, however, I know full well that even if I leave my distraction of a phone at home during a “silent” wander in the woods, I may very well start to undesirably expect, think and obsess over the notifications, emails, and messages I am “receiving” even with the phone and the actual capacity to engage with it completely removed from my being. This concept of “invisible attentional burden or residue” will be for another post, but I do want to emphasize again the importance of non-attachment and engagement in the process for the sake of the process and not for the expected outcome.
So bringing this back to the main point of this post: I share with you perhaps my greatest realization of what needed swift removal from my being: the judgment and inconsequential value of the words “Good” and “Bad.” If you stop to think about it, you likely use these words quite often. To give you an idea of how often, I can personally share that over the course of one day last winter (yes, I tracked this) I used the words “Good” and “Bad” collectively in both spoken and written language over 50 times. 50 times!
Now in what context do we use these words most often? For starters, we use these words to provide a judgmental description, share a personal preference, encourage a choice or an avoidance, or impart some association of a benefit vs.harm to an object or process.
I could stop right here and begin an argument as to why we have no need for such words of judgment, bias, and preference at all if we wish to live engaged in the present process without attachment to objects or people, but for the sake of this article and its relevance to our modern society, I pose perhaps a more realistic proposition: If we can’t eliminate such words as “Good” and “Bad” from our vocabulary, can we at least use words that actually contribute to a meaningful description?
What the heck does “Good” really mean anyway? Or how about “Bad”? To me they keep company with other trivial filler words such as “very,” “um,” “uh,” and the unnecessary “and,” and have little to no intrinsic value. In some cases, they can even simplify and distort the true meaning of a concept, object or idea. “Bad” cholesterol anyone?
So now that we can start to see the relative uselessness of these words and even the potential harm they can cause when used inappropriately, we can begin to start asking and answering a more interesting question: What words can we use instead?
Replacing “Good” and “Bad” isn’t as simple or as straightforward as finding a new, replacement word. For example, simply using “Great” in all of the situations you were previously using “Good” does not really address the fundamental issue of using “Good” in the first place. Yes, unfortunately, the answer to finding our replacement language is not that easy.
BUT, if we start to pause, reflect and examine WHAT WE ARE REALLY TRYING TO SAY when we use the words “Good” and “Bad” you will begin to see that: YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY (instead of “Good” and “Bad”), YOU JUST HAVEN’T GIVEN YOURSELF THE TIME OR PERMISSION TO ACTUALLY SAY IT.
As John Mayer most eloquently put it: “Say what you need to say!”
What did you actually “need to say” when you described blueberries as a “Good” food? Maybe it was nourishing, empowering, freeing, refreshing, or delightful. Or how about if you used “Bad?” Perhaps, it was actually tasteless, sour, bitter, or mushy.
Or another example: What do you say when you finally identify a space to park in a jammed asphalt lot? “Oh look, there’s a good spot”, or perhaps the always joyful commentary from the passenger seat: “This is a bad place to try to park, you should keep driving until you find a better one.” I’ll stop there with my examples to simply point how ridiculous we can get when describing objects in our lives. Can a parking space really be “Good” or “Bad? What actually makes one “Good” or one “Bad.” Maybe the the “Good” space was “Good” because it was closer to where you wished to start shopping, had ample room to get in and out, or was not surrounded by epic mud puddles. Those descriptions, you see, are much more relevant and useful than “Good” or “Bad.” If you start to look more closely at these descriptions, you may see that they also do not impart any significant judgement, they merely describe. “Oh look, there’s a spot that is close to the grocery store entrance,” “Oh look, there’s a spot with enough space to load our groceries,” “Oh look, there’s a dry spot to park the car.”
You see, it’s just description: meaningful, non-judgemental description.
To bring this ramble to a close, you may be asking, “Why did we start talking about parking spots, and you talked about eliminating and trimming language, but if I am counting correctly your descriptions have way more words than just one, what gives?”
Yes, a good, I mean insightful question.
As I think you can guess, we are not really concerned about the parking spot or the blueberries, or even the exact number or words we use in our spoken and written language.
We are concerned, instead, with the manner in which we think about and use language to describe our lived experience.
Need some more help to get started? Some of my most useful replacement descriptors are: “more or less nourishing”, “more or less wholesome”, “more or less supportive”, “positive or negative”, “distracting or engaging”, “empowering or disempowering.”
Pause, reflect and get creative. Or perhaps, just start noticing what words you use and how you use them.
I think we will all discover, no matter what stage we are at in this “awareness and refinement” process,” “Good” and “Bad” just don’t deserve a place at the dining room table. Unless of course, they bring some blueberries.
May you be happy, healthy and forever, at peace.