Making meaning

What we do is not what destroys us. Rather our fate rests on how we describe what we do.  Indeed, we do not know what we have done until we get the descriptions right.
             Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child

Although I think Hauerwas is slightly over-exaggerating the point here, he is highlighting a significant concept.  This is why words are so important.

Tabloid journalists will often use the word ‘teen’ to describe someone when they want to emphasise their youth – ‘Teen convicted of bank robbery’ for instance.  The person in question could be a day short of his 20th birthday, and cut a menacing figure at 6ft tall, with rippling muscles; calling him a ‘teen’ though, conjures up a mental image of a 13-year-old weakling, someone who should still be in school.

In debates about whether or not it is appropriate for parents to spank a child, the ‘anti’ lobby will commonly characterise this as hitting, while the ‘pros’ will use the gentler ‘smack’.

How we describe an event, an action or a person profoundly shapes how we feel about and respond to them. It’s why management trainees are taught not to see problems or even challenges but ‘opportunities’.

We can shape our recollection of and attitude to an experience by the language we use to describe it to ourselves.  If I tell myself ‘Ugh, I’ve had an awful day’ I will enter the evening feeling drained and lethargic, whereas if I leave the office thinking ‘phew, I’m glad that’s over!’ I have already started picturing myself as a person who’s glad, not one who’s tired, drained and miserable.

This is why I am so alert to the way words are used in society. The things we say and think shape us, our attitudes and our actions more than we realise, and they shape our expectations, our beliefs about the way the world should work.

What we do can and does destroy us, but often we begin to pave the path to the destructive action years earlier by the things we tell ourselves. This is true for individuals, and it is equally, and more catastrophically, true for societies.

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