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Contradictions

Apr 18, 2022

    “Why is dark bad?” my guest asked me.

   I was midway through my interview with an empowerment coach and the question caught me with a jolt. I had been talking about the dark night of the soul and how moving beyond it meant rising from a deep level of negativity and despair.

    Perhaps it was a poor choice of word on my part as I could see the effect this simple noun had on her. She had lived in darkness since an illness left her blind in her mid-20’s. Everything in her life was dark, and yet there was nothing depressive or pessimistic about her at all. In fact, she was one of the most empowering women I’d ever met, which is why I’d invited her back on my podcast in the first place. She went on to explain that for her there’s calm in the darkness. “We do fun things in the dark like watch movies or tell ghost stories under a starless sky,” she said with the enthusiasm of someone who often partook in both of those activities. “Good things can happen in darkness, in times when we struggle.”

    She was right, of course. Too often we can get lazy with our language and use words as shorthand, to be viewed as words without nuance. Dark to most people is a word often laden with sinister ideas, such as Darth Vader moving over to the dark side or people with dark skin being viewed as less than by racists. Dark is also associated with mystery as in being in the dark about what’s going on, being kept in the dark, taking a shot in the dark or looking up at dark clouds in the sky. My guest was challenging me to be more clear with my language. There was more to a dark night than disturbing, bleak thoughts. It could also be viewed as a blank space on which to create new worlds of wonder and awe.

    I got hit with a similar lesson a few weeks later, when speaking about fear with another guest. Fear is a popular topic on my show, with many of my expert guests expounding on their techniques for conquering it or avoiding it, with the general belief that fear is bad. This man, however, maintained that fear is good, a thing to embrace, and yes, even learn to love. “Embody it,” he said. “Let that feeling envelope your entire body, and once you do, use it as a tool to drive you to whatever you want to achieve in life.”

    This got me thinking about other words we use that have evolved over time to take on other, sometimes contradictory meanings. Take the word cool. A hundred years ago, it only referenced temperature and could be viewed as negative of positive depending on context. A cool breeze on a hot summer’s day is refreshing, a cool attitude toward an enemy is not. Then around 90 or so years ago, it started to take on a new meaning in jazz circles as being something fashionable, until today when just about everyone uses the word to describe anything that’s good and likeable.   

     There are other slang words that started life meaning one thing and evolved into something else. Dope is associated with being less than smart or a synonym for drugs, but it also can refer to something that’s, well, cool, like that dress you’re wearing looks dope on you. Or take the word sick. In our grandparents’ time its meaning was limited to ailing people. But now if you say that thing is sick, you’re letting the person you’re with know that you think it’s well, yes, cool.

     Then there are the words that we use that take on new meanings when speaking them to ourselves. Often they are hostile, uncharitable and in truth bear no relationship to reality. Have you ever forgotten something and berated yourself with the thought, “I’m so stupid”? Or stepped on a scale and thought, “I’m so fat and ugly”? Or get into a minor fender bender and wail, “Why do bad things always happen to me”?

    We all say things to ourselves that make us feel small or the opposite of how they relate to reality. According to the National Science Foundation we think somewhere around 50 – 70,000 thoughts a day and 80 percent of them are negative. Words that on the surface seem so trivial actually have deep consequences. The crazy thing is that most of these words are buried so deep in our subconscious that we don’t even realize their impact. Just like I casually tossed out the word dark in my interview, these negative ideas swirl around in our heads all day long, wearing us down over time and leaving us with a slight veil of negativity that we embody reluctantly and carry with us .

   We can combat this by paying attention to these mental messages. The next time you hear yourself say, “I’m so stupid,” stop and ask yourself….really? Does one minor gaffe define you as stupid? If that were the case, then you could reason that the whole world is stupid, as no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes.  Does a few extra pounds make you ugly? Only if your sole definition is focused on the physical. There are countless people with extra bulges who are good at heart and otherwise contribute mightily toward the greater good. Just as there are those in perfect physical shape whose hearts are uncaring and even cruel. Who are the ugly ones there? And if you’re the kind of person who always sees the glass half empty, it might be time to take stock of yourself and make a list of both the good and bad things in your life. Chances are there are more positive things in your life that you realize and that saying “bad things always happen” is a lie that does you greater harm than you realize.

     The words we use are more important than we think. It would do good to remember that the next time we speak to a loved one, a friend, our boss, the neighbor next door or even ourselves. When we’re mindful of our language we gain clarity of thought and improve our expression of it in our world. And that’s a thought that’s really cool.



 

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