From a young age my parents taught me about God and told me not to use “cursed” words. But neither of these things lasted very long, for around the age of 9 I began a process of individualization that challenged both bits of indoctrination. I first told my stepfather in a boyish lisp that “I cussed in my brain”; and after making it through that admittance unscathed, I then decided to tell my father I didn’t believe in God. The latter went over less well, but I didn’t care because I was committed to creating my own belief structures. And I simply didn’t believe that there were actually “cursed” words, words that the universe would punish me for saying; no more than I believed that a man collected and squeezed all the animals of the world onto a boat during a flood, fed them all without having them kill each other, and then navigated to all the continents to redistribute them once things had calmed down.
But as I got older, as I fell deeper and deeper in love with Chomsky and writing, with philosophy and linguistics, I realized there was actually power in words, that some were truly cursed in a sense. But they weren’t the ones that my teachers, television producers, and parents protected me from. They were words that threatened humanity in a more serious way–words that stripped empathy and compassion from a relationship; words that undermined personal value; words that blockaded growth and connection and that tainted the present moment with anchors set in futures that didn’t yet exist and pasts that couldn’t be changed.
Now of course these words of which I speak aren’t actually cursed in a magical sense; these aren’t words representative of the Japanese’s notion of Kotodama, where words had mystical powers derived from the soul of language. This was more of a neuroscience type of magic, a biological hacking of cognition that rewired our thought processes inside the electrical storm we call a brain.
This was more of a neuroscience type of magic, a biological hacking of cognition that rewired our thought processes inside the electrical storm we call a brain.
Now if you can agree with me that life is basically the story we tell ourselves ( that we are characters with attributes we’ve chosen to fill in like a dating website: residents of the so-and-so arbitrary-named land mass, with so-and-so job titles, with so-and-so beliefs and desires and hobbies, etc) then I hope you can also agree that the words we use to tell that story are of the utmost importance. Some words emphasize aspects of our character, others diminish them, some create bridges to the other characters of the world, while some create chasms. And some rewire our brain in ways that lead to neuroses that make us harmful to this planet and all those whom we interact with(including ourselves); neuroses like…
.. anxiety, sadness or depression, anger, irritability, mental confusion, low sense of self-worth, etc., behavioral symptoms such as phobic avoidance, vigilance, impulsive and compulsive acts, lethargy, etc., cognitive problems such as unpleasant or disturbing thoughts, repetition of thoughts and obsession, habitual fantasizing, negativity and cynicism, etc…dependency, aggressiveness, perfectionism, schizoid isolation, socio-culturally inappropriate behaviors, etc
Now, I don’t want to be one of those psychology types that declares every personality trait or occasional emotional flare-up as a “mental disorder.” I believe we all experience moments of neurotic behavior from time to time–that’s just part of being a human in a chaotic society living on a chaotic planet. But some of these behaviors are symptomatic of deeply-rooted issues that derail our emotional intelligence and balance from its rational, humanistic core.
Which is why I tend to like Dr. C. George Boeree’s definition of Neurosis:
“a poor ability to adapt to one’s environment, an inability to change one’s life patterns, and the inability to develop a richer, more complex, more satisfying personality.”
And the reason I like this definition is because it explains the issues that arise with each of the following phrases I’d like to explore with you: radicalism through indoctrination (inability to develop a richer, more complex, more satisfying personality) , radicalism and arrogance through closed-mindedness (an inability to change one’s life patterns), and a complaining cynicism based on a desire to change a past event rather than address the realistic options that you inevitably have to deal with to move forward (poor ability to adapt to one’s environment).
So let’s look at our three phrases:
“Supposed to / Should”
Welcome to the house of God and Government, of Church and Congress, of “Because mom said so” and “Because I don’t want to go to hell or prison.”
This is the language kryptonite of free-thought.
These are poisonous words, words created out of fear and a desire to control. They imply that one human being knows what’s better for another. They are social constructs of culture, illusory rules imposed by man whose form often feels a lot like a prison cage or a shackle.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly lessons and guidance we can all give each other based on our individual experiences with life thus far, but none of us have the answers that make everything better. None of us have figured out the way a human being is “supposed” to live. None of us can look at another human being and say: “if you do exactly like I tell you, your life will be better.”
Psychotherapist Carl Jung once said, “I have frequently seen people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life.” And anytime you take the one-size-fits-all solution of another, you are ignoring your own intuition, beliefs, and rationale; and in my opinion, this always results in an “inadequate answer to life” as Jung might put it.
Lastly, “should have” desires a wish to change the past, which means living outside of the present and accepting reality. This strips life of it’s meaning and hinders your ability to deal with the situation at hand. The past doesn’t exist, and therefore cannot be changed; move on.
If considering uttering these words, try alternatives: “If I was you, I would…”, “It seems to me the best option is to…”, “I think it would mean a lot if you…” In these ways, you show that at best you’ve got a suggestion that was well thought out and comes from personal experience, rather than a culturally-indoctrinated response. Realization of personal subjectivity is the key to empathy.
And here we meet arrogance incarnate, the radical champion of “I know what’s best!” Similar to “supposed to” and “should”, “I know” suggests that one has divined answers from the cosmos, that they have this tremendous ability to understand the complexities of how social, economic, and political systems operate with 8 billion human variables and an unknown quantum infinitude.
Listen, we don’t know there is a god, anymore than we know there isn’t one ( that’s why I claim agnostic–the ideology of “I don’t know”). We don’t know what other people are thinking, we don’t know their motives, and usually we don’t know the whole story. And that’s the point–we rarely, if ever, know the whole story and all the subtle nuances that create events and dictate someone’s decision making. Our subjective knowledge is usually ripe with missing data. If we somehow did know the whole story, we would be omniscient, which would make us a god; but we don’t even know if that “guy” exists, so how could we know if we actually know everything? See how complicated this gets? It’s like a Russian doll mobius strip of ignorance.
The classic alternative here is: “In my opinion…” You can also try: “From what I’ve gathered…” or “It seems to me…”
We most commonly see this phrase uttered in response to something negative that happens to us: perhaps losing a game(“if only I did this move instead of that one”), or getting a speeding ticket (“if only I hadn’t been pressing the pedal down at the moment I passed the police car”), or choosing the wrong plans (“if only I hadn’t stayed home I would have met so-so at that show/bar”), or anything really–anytime we make a choice and then hindsight shows us another choice might have been “better”.
Often times this “better” is really just the grass-is-greener mentality; it’s likely that if you’re one of those people who says this phrase often, that even if you found yourself on one the most greenest of grasses, then you’d likely still wish you’d made another choice. I think a lot of this stems from a sense of nihilism, or a lack of connecting with experiences that truly fulfill you. It’s frustration with the mundane and a lust for reality to have this certain grandiosity and romance that we see in movies and read in books. In some ways it may be a lack of gratitude, but it may also be because you’re trying too hard to be fulfilled in a scene that isn’t actually fulfilling to you. If you find yourself if this situation a lot, I’d recommend trying some new past-times and exploring alternative passions. Perhaps question if the path you’re on in life is actually what you want, or if it’s just what was easy because it’s what your friends like or because you just happened to fall into it.
Otherwise, you’re just complaining, and as I’ve talked about before, this is literally killing you. But even worse than complaining, this is particularly bad because you’re acknowledging the truth of the situation and still defying it. And while you’re talking about what “could” have happened, you’re not talking about how to handle what actually did happen. So in this case, if you catch yourself using “if only” in this way, I would say accept the failure, ask yourself what lesson it provides, then move on and apply those lessons to handle the future in a better way. Trying to change the past is a futile waste of time and energy, and it’s a great way to stay in a funk rather than change for the better.
Now of course I’m not saying these words are never to be used, nor am I saying that anytime you use them it’s indicative of some greater neuroses. Obviously one can have the facts in a situation, and thus know the answer to a question. You can recommend to a friend that they should sell high and buy low. You can wonder: “if only unicorns were real” or create hypothesis of “if only x, then y” and then learn from your results. We’re playful creatures–have fun and don’t take this article as a too serious blanket statement. But when you start hearing yourself making these utterances often, consider seriously if you’re being an arrogant, close-minded, radical who is just spouting off indoctrination and complaining about your inability to change that which can’t be changed rather than focusing on being productive with what the reality of the situation is. If this is happening, you’re probably pushing people away and severing your chance for real connection: with self and others.