Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Impermanence of Words

I've been thinking a lot lately about the impermanence of words.

When I was in sixth grade, we had to make a poetry collection in language arts.

For a little age context, here was the cover of my binder:

(This was right around the time when cell phones were coming out, and Verizon had that "free at last!" commercial.)

Take a look at one poem in this collection, "Tangled Feelings":

After a night of parent-teacher conferences, my parents pulled me aside in my bedroom with concerned looks on their faces, showed me this poem, and asked, "Do you have tangled feelings?"

I was so embarrassed. No, I didn't have tangled feelings! You thought this was me?

I remember thinking—when I wrote this poem—that this is what poetry should sound like or be. It had a rhythm, some rhyme, and the content was much more weighty than anything else in the binder. They weren't my feelings, but I thought it made a good poem.

Typed words can mean everything, and they can mean nothing.

They can mean everything for the writer and nothing for the reader, or nothing for the writer and everything for the reader. Those are clearly extremes, so we also have the entire spectrum in between.

I think this is highly related to a lot of other topics on my mind: prejudice, judgement, labels, and online hate comments.

I see people torn apart online based one one article, phrase, or tweet.

For example, I'm so inspired by Timothy Goodman and Jessica Walsh's 12 Kinds of Kindness project, and find their 40 Days of Dating project interesting and vulnerable.

Today I saw somewhere that the latter was getting turned into a movie, and I mistakenly glanced at the comments when I got to the end. Here are the second and third most highly rated comments:

Or, when I published this article about the line that didn't sit right with me from Michelle Obama's DNC speech, here's what someone wrote to me on Twitter:

When I asked my friend if this was real or sarcasm—not realizing that linking to the original tweet would notify its tweeter—this was the response I received before being blocked:

Two points I draw from these are (1) This is not okay—it does not create anything positive or helpful (in fact, I'd argue that it creates negative emotions/thoughts and thus negative actions/effects), and (2) they demonstrate how people are judged every day based on text written during moments.

Because here's the thing: We cannot be boiled down to a single sentence! To a single article! To a single video! To a single website! To a single book!

Humans are incredibly complex beings.

We need to remember what being human means, and invite humanity to be present into our everyday actions.

That telemarketer whose call is ruining your day? They're a person with a story and emotions, doing what they're supposed to do at this moment for their job.

That woman on the corner holding a sign asking for money? She had/has a childhood, family, hopes, fears, and dreams—just like you.

That guy who cut you off on your way to work? Maybe he's in a very stressful period of his life, or maybe he's an asshole because of a rough childhood he had no control over, or maybe he honestly didn't see you.

Now take all of that complexity, and add to it the fact that we're growing and learning and changing all the time. Things I used to think were true, I no longer do. Things I once wrote and meant, I may no longer agree with.

And this is totally natural and normal.

I think relationships are one of the easiest ways to see how our thoughts and feelings naturally change over time. Did you ever love someone or have a dear friend—but now love someone else or have different friends?

I did, time and time again. At times I felt to my core that I couldn't live without certain people, yet over time our roles changed and these people—who were once my #1s—have faded out of my life.

Now branch out into other scenarios. For example, looking back on various points in my life, I can say:
  • I used to believe in god and now I don't. 
  • I used to think traveling was expensive and now I know how cheap it easily can be.
  • I used to only speak English and now I also speak Spanish and French.
  • I used to eat Pop-tarts and now I wouldn't even go near them in a grocery store.
  • I used to get jealous of other people's lives and now I don't—I'm so grateful for my own.
  • I used to think I wanted to work at EPIC to make $$ and now you couldn't pay me to work there.
And we don't even have to go back very far to see thoughts change—you could feel very different today than yesterday or last week. (That's what amazes me about 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-year-long prison sentences, by the way. A year is such a long time, where so much growth and change can occur!)

Every day we're different people from yesterday, physically and mentally.

And when you write, the words that you create depend on your emotions, life, and surroundings in that very moment—whether the words are true or fiction. They will have tangible effects when read by others.

So every time you see a written comment, tweet, post, site—remember that it is a creation from a certain moment in time in a certain context. It is not a person, but it was created by a person.

A living, breathing, complex human being—just like you.

Recommended reading: Alexandra Franzen's "Email Is Wonderful"

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

When is a time that your thoughts have changed?

Is it easy or difficult for you to remember that online content was created by humans at a certain moment in their lives?

How can we bring more humanity to the internet?
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  1. We can bring more humanity to the internet by commenting on blog posts. Interaction and dialogue is certainly a key way to bring out the humanity in us. Especially when the comments build us up. :)

    1. Fantastic, thanks! :)
      I've thought that if there were a simple way to leave video responses to blog posts, that could also help.