ONE OF MY MOST RECURRING THOUGHTS, IN ANY KIND OF CIRCUMSTANCE, is the question of what we would do if we started all over: if we had language, but not very much of it, and there were no laws, no set processes; and we had the desire to live peaceably, most of us anyway, and somehow deal with those who didn't. Some of the more advanced thinkers had come to believe that cooperation and the clever use of diverse skills would take us farther quicker than people operating in small pockets or solo. Of course we would need to develop rules, and eventually they would become laws, and probably some form of incentive, and I'm not so naïve that
Through this lens of starting over, I recently went on a kind of listening tour, processing language that I overheard through a filter I was calling originality, hoping to hear ideas that would give this mythical new world the creative spark of hope we often lack now -- but it took a bad turn: originality was hard to come by in normal, even serious, conversation. Instead I heard troubling clichés used far more frequently than I would have expected, and I began to cringe at the ideas lost, wrong actions taken, bad interpretations of motivation and poorly crafted lines of reasoning that came about because over-used and shallow phrases were amounting to a worldview of sorts — a dangerous shorthand that wasn’t meant to be a moral code but somehow became exactly that. It was so easy to fall into the trap: people understood you right away, heads nodded, you didn’t need to elaborate, the wisdom seemed battle-tested and ready to go. Except: whose battle and exactly where did we mean to go with these quasi-eternal semi-truths?
It would be hard to start a new world with this linguistic baggage serving to restrict behavior, to dampen adventure and risk, to limit examination and depth of thought, because ultimately that was the general message of these clichés -- don't stray too far afoot --
Here I rank those I heard most often in reverse order of severity, going from the annoying to the catastrophic, and I’m nowhere near done with all the powerful but misguided language, and the behavior it encourages, that we perpetuate without thinking. I could make a regular column out of this.
4. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”This little ditty seems innocuous enough at first, along the lines of save your energy. But it can be people’s excuse for missing the big moments and not going after the important things. Sometimes you do have to put the burners on. The metaphors for life have to be grander, more encompassing than the false dichotomies of this kind of either/or. Yes, parts of life are a marathon, in fact if we choose to use the metaphor of running we can characterize most of life as a marathon, requiring endurance and steady mental focus; but too often I have heard this used to deny the fierce and impassioned sprinter that lives within. All things are not the same — some things are more important than others, and this saying has often had the effect of making everything exist on the same plane, at the same pace, with no prioritization or sense of urgency. Those who have a sense of urgency find themselves way out in front of the masses, with no help to get to the finish line should it be needed. The race track of life is littered with the broken souls of those who wanted to do so much, but were judged irrational and dangerous and left to their own devices — even though the very thing being chased was often to the benefit of all, and in good times happily enjoyed by the marathoners. Not as innocuous as it seems.
The mostly hidden evil of
3. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire”The evil and danger of this phrase is revealing itself to me daily. This is the beginning of the thinking that sends us down some dark alleyways. What looks like smoke could be a little dust that got kicked up, a random step on a dry path and nothing more — smoky-looking for few seconds but quick to dissipate. Yet the wisp of smoke or dust alone, when viewed by those always on the lookout for this sort of thing, can become an inferno of the imagination. This saying will cause overreaction and leave little room for things to evolve. This clever and deceptive bit of pervasive groupthink is really saying that if you’re suspected of something, it’s probably true — if they say you did it, having seen some hint of evidence that could mean a million other things, you must have done something. Any rumor becomes a plausible accusation to be taken seriously: the tiny whisper becomes a roar as it articulates what the little wisp of smoke led so many to suspect. The rumor gets halfway around the world before truth puts its pants on (Colin Kaepernick quoting Winston Churchill quoting Mark Twain, I think) and next they’re asking you whether it’s time to go back to rehab . . . . or if you stopped kicking your dog . . . . . and they comment on how defensive you seem in response (hey, of course I’m defensive, I’m being accused, I’m defending myself) — more smoke, more suspicion, it’s probably time to go away for a while. PETA will never forgive you although you haven’t had a dog in years. Get a lawyer to protect yourself and they really have you: he’s lawyering up, they say, the sure sign of a guilty man. One thing leads to another, and once one attorney is on the scene, everyone has to be represented. Those defending this saying will point to all the lawyers and say: See? There was smoke, and now this, the fire. But the fire was after the fact: the overreaction and drama ignited it. We don’t really know what was back there at the beginning, and it’s too late now.
2. “It’s lonely at the top.”Why do people think this is true? Is it telling you to give up having friends, or at least not having them at work if you’re the boss? But 90% of our social contacts come from work. Favoritism, broken relationships, fierce and silly competition . . . . these seem to happen anyway. You can’t make a rule and have these complications suddenly disappear. Or conjure a cute phrase and think you’ve got the answers. It does not have to be lonely at the top. Many workplaces have rules that force people into isolation, as relationships imply lawsuits to the HR-minded. That’s the primary reason it’s lonely at the top: they force you to be alone out of their own hyper-careful fear.
Or is this saying about what it’s like when you have a tough decision to make? That you’ll have to take all the heat, while everyone else is blithely untouched by any fallout? I was quoted this when I was told by a Board member that I couldn’t have an employee rent my spare room. “Hey, you signed up for the top job, these are the rules, you can’t play favorites,” the board member said sagely. It wasn’t written anywhere, but I was supposed to know it: this type of conventional, play-it-safe wisdom is so pervasive, people believe you breathe these pseudo-truths in the air. What air was I breathing not to know this? The social revolution of the 1960s had taken care of this conventional wisdom crap, or so I had believed. If it had, the concepts didn’t stick: by 2016 a skywriter had apparently re-written these things into eternity, but then the winds picked up and who knows where the hell the messages went? The upshot is we’d better keep our eyes on the words and our spirits in tune with the implacable forces of control and risk aversion.
By the way, if you work for me, you can date who you want. Somebody is really going to enforce a rule against natural attraction and people falling in love? HR is worried that one party or the other is going to claim coercion, harassment, skewed power dynamics, gender discrimination, hostile work environment. The lawsuits are happening anyway, so why stop the best thing about being human? Anyone who wants to date me, though, would have to quit. The boss is off-limits. Lots of pressure on my end: I’d better be worth it.