This past winter, I got to spend time with my cousin and her friend. They are exchange students from Korea in San Francisco. We were talking about their experience in the US so far, and the topic turned to language. My cousin said “I think Korean has a much bigger vocabulary than English. In Korean we have so many words to talk about different types of emotions, but in the US, it seems that everyone uses the same words always. They are mad or sad or tired. Oh yes, many people definitely say they feel tired.”
I said “I think that may be more about culture than language. Korea is a more formal and structured society. People take more care with their words. In the US, especially amongst college students, people are much more casual. They develop a habit of using certain words and don’t expand beyond them. There’s many words like tired, each with their own meaning, like fatigued, exhausted, weary, worn out, and sluggish. Yet for some reason, people don’t use them very much, but stick with tired.”
Once, a friend was talking to me about an event he attended. He said “Dude, it was hecka legit.” I said to him “If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to hear you use other words to say what you just said, since you use that phrase so often.” He responded “Um, it was profoundly life transformative,” to which I said “Hey, that’s good! That tells me more about that experience.”
In my own life, I try to embrace more diversity in the words that I employ. An overemphasis on precision in language can become pedantic and even paralyzing (expression of an idea can be halted by an obsessive necessity to have just. that. right. word.) However, I do appreciate the richness that an expanded vocabulary permits and I want to continually make efforts to develop my words along with my thoughts.
When listening to another person share about an experience, a useful question is “What was most surprising about that experience?” This is a helpful question because it guides the other person to remember their expectations, think about their experience, and consider the discrepancies between the two. There is a great deal of reflection centered in this question and it facilitates careful contemplation.
For example, I was asked “What was the most surprising thing about law school for you?” After some thought, I responded that the most surprising thing was how many of the insecurities and self-defeating thoughts that I had thought were past me came back up again. I would be overwhelmed with the work and avoid it, then would question whether I was really smart enough and disciplined enough to deserve to be at this school. Even though my context was different, I was still the same person, working through negative tendencies and behaviors. In retrospect, it should not have been surprising, since simply changing my context does not change me as a person. All the same, this was a useful insight, since now I know to watch for it and not be so surprised again. I was able to recognize this self-defeating thought and counter it with the truths I have learned from the past few years.
The cartoonist Bill Watterson noted in an anthology of Calvin and Hobbes strips that many people assume Calvin is based on his childhood or his own child. Watterson said that in fact he was a rather well-behaved kid and that he has no children. He explained that he enjoys writing Calvin because so often he disagrees with what Calvin does, but it allows him to express another part of himself that usually doesn’t see much light. Calvin allows Watterson to express a part of himself.
For example, imagine this bit of dialogue:
Jessica: “Stop with all your God talk! Stop trying to shove your religion down my throat!”
Mary: “Heh, knowing where your throat’s been? I’d rather not.”
Now, I would never say such a thing in real life, and I think it’s a deplorable comment. Still, I can’t help but savor some of the deliciousness of this comeback. The great thing about fictional characters is that you can explore different personas (diva/charlatan/fool) without the experiencing the repercussions of their behaviors.
My flight to Chicago was canceled, so I ended up flying to Milwaukee to spend the night and then to take the train the next day. This morning, I was eating breakfast at the hotel, when a woman came into the hotel in great distress. Evidently she was a guest checking out of the hotel and her husband had accidentally spilled a bag of snacks outside on the street, including a bottle of wine that was a gift. She started venting over the ineptitude of her husband, calling him “stupid” and “idiot.” When her husband came into the hotel, she continued to snap at him and call him names, reminding him of the other mistakes he made that day. The husband said nothing.
The woman probably had grounds to be upset with her husband, but I couldn’t help but think about how my parents would have handled this situation. For one, they would not have aired their grievances in such a public fashion. Moreover, while my parents have had occasion to be upset with each other, they have never insulted the other’s intelligence. On the contrary, my father frequently commends my mother for her wisdom and understanding, while my mother compliments my father’s insight and knowledge. They probably would have been annoyed by such an accident, but ultimately would not have taken it personally.
In the end, blaming the other person is satisfying in the short term but undermines the connection in the long term. The blame approach wins the argument to lose the relationship.
Today is the birthday for one of my law school mentors, a 3rd year. When I sent him a Facebook message to wish him happy birthday, I realized that he is younger than me. I then checked several of the 2nd and 3rd years who have helped me this past quarter, and I am older than almost all of them. This should not be strange at all (the median age of my school is 24, while I am 26), yet somehow I find it odd. Perhaps it is an effect of the hierarchical nature of Korean thinking that values a person commensurate to their age and defines relationships partly on differentials in chronologic existence.
Yet I take this as a learning experience to remember that just because I happened to be born 2 years before someone else does not mean that I have nothing I can learn from them. As I have said before, I can learn about life from the older Russian woman with a Master’s degree and I can learn from the 18 year old completing his GED and playing in a punk band in his spare time. The mark of maturity is humble teachability.
Once, I was having lunch with a few friends. Half the time they were on their phones. I would talk with the person next to me, but the others would check Facebook or text others.
Imagine what it would be like if I said “Hey guys, I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I might not be alive tomorrow.” Stunned, they might look up from their phones, concern in their eyes. “What? Joel, are you ok?” “Yeah, I feel fine. In fact there’s nothing wrong with me that I can tell. But you never know what might happen. I might get hit by a car today, or be caught in a fire, or some terrible accident. My point is that this might be our last meal together, so could I ask you to put your phone away and be present here with me? I want to share this time with you, but it’s hard to do that when you’re not fully here.”
Of course, I didn’t say this. I just ate my lunch and was thankful for friends.