Saturday, May 10, 2008

My Two Least-Favorite Words

For quite some time, my least-favorite word in the English language has been this: deserve. I just despise that word -- nearly every time it's used, it's in the form of some type of whine. It's usually used as if the world owes the person saying it something, as in:

(All are real quotes):

"I deserve better treatment than that."

"Spence deserved the Rhodes Scholarship, but didn't get it."

"Petty Officer Smith deserved to get a Bronze Star because he went to Iraq and got shot at."

The first one might be legitimate in many cases, but may be the speaker's fault for not demanding better treatment; #2 is absurd on its face, and shows no understanding of the Rhodes selection process; #3 is equally absurd, and shows no understanding of a combat medal selection process based on meritorious or valorous actions -- by any military definition, merely being in the vicinity of incoming small arms fire or mortars is neither.

Anyway, back to my larger point -- I loathe the word 'deserve' because I can't stand the mentality behind it. My mentality is 180-degrees out -- if you want something, you have to go for it. Don't expect the world to knock down your door, and don't go around thinking that arbitrary distinctions somehow belong to you. They don't. Besides, you can't deserve something based on subjective criteria; it's a contradiction-in-terms.

I've never really had a second least-favorite word until it dawned on me how much I dislike the word 'sorry.'

Now, the word sorry definitely has its place -- don't get me wrong. If I went away for the week but forgot to turn my alarm clock off, I would honestly be sorry for having done it and would sincerely apologize to any and all neighbors who I woke up inadvertently.

In other words, if I do something unintentionally that causes harm to someone else, or if I do something intentionally that causes harm which I later truly regret, I will use the 's' word. However, in order to preserve its meaning, I will not use it when I:

a) Run into someone I haven't seen in a long time. When I do, assuming I like the person, my first emotional response is not a sad one but a happy one, as in, "I'm glad to see you." The last thing on my mind is this: sorry. I'm not 'sorry' that I've been busy (I would expect that), I'm not 'sorry' that I've been away (comes with the job) and I'm certainly not 'sorry' that "it's been awhile" (the mutuality of that should cancel itself out). If an apology is the first thing out of your mouth when you see someone, you're (presumptuously and maybe even arrogantly) assuming that you have somehow disappointed the other person by some action or inaction, when in reality they haven't been waiting with bated breath for your MacArthur-like return.

b) Cross someone's path in a public space. Somehow "sorry" has replaced "excuse me" in these situations -- two people going opposite ways through a door, getting into or coming out of an elevator, getting into a queue of some sort, etc. I'm actually making a point of responding to these "sorrys" with "it's okay, there's actually nothing to be sorry about here." Personally, I'll stick to "excuse me" and save a word like "sorry" for situations which truly merit its use.

c) Look back on anything I did before adulthood. The honest truth is, I'm not "sorry" for anything I did as a kid -- any prank or stunt I pulled, anything I yelled out of a car window to be funny when I was 15, anyone I raised my voice at before rationally talking something through, etc. I did it, I learned from it, and I've moved way past it. I don't sit around feeling "sorry" about it now.

d) A million other daily situations that I have complete control over. For instance, I'm not 'sorry' that I drive a vehicle which burns gasoline, thereby a) ever-so-slightly increasing our dependence on foreign oil and b) polluting the air we breathe. The point is: If I were truly 'sorry' about, I wouldn't do it. The same applies for you, and for anyone else. If you feel empathy towards cyclone victims in Burma, send them a check or volunteer your time for them. But don't talk about how 'sorry' you are to have a roof and a fridge full of food unless your next step is to give those things up and live in an alley.

You may be wondering why I'm making a big deal here of words like 'sorry' and 'deserve.' After all, they're just words, and like most words, they're not directly rooted to their full denotative meaning every time they're used. Okay, fair points, I admit.

Still, words can have meaning for speaker and/or listener, even when unintended. I have a good friend who works at a non-profit supporting battered women. It rankles him every time someone talks about a "wife-beater" t-shirt, even if the speaker intends no malice.

'Deserve' and 'sorry' have the same effect on me. As someone who dislikes a) expressions of entitlement and b) insincerity, I would greatly prefer that those words be reserved for those rare occasions when their use is warranted.

After all, it's a sorry state of affairs when people can't be self-reliant and sincere with one another -- after all, isn't that the least that our fellow citizens deserve?

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