I strongly believe that the language we use frames how we think about the world. For that reason, I also believe that we adjust our approach to the world when we adjust the words we use to think, speak and write about it. When we choose to enhance our practices in the world, as I have chosen with kindness, we can have noticeable impact when we reflect on how our words work on our minds and hearts.
Recently, I have been focusing on eliminating three very common words from my mental framework, in order to fine-tune my kindness practice: “is” (and all forms of “to be”), “not,” and “should.” Why?
When we think/say something “is” something, we impose a certain reductiveness, equating what we say about it to the entirety of its being, even if just temporarily. When I think, “I am tired,” I foreclose so many other aspects of my feelings, intentions, and position in my own world. Even the subtle shift of thinking that I “feel” tired reinforces the reality that will have more energy later, that I honor my other feelings, and so forth. Or taking it further, I can say to myself, “I did a lot of good work today,” or “I want to get extra sleep so I can do my best tomorrow,” and suddenly, my thoughts don’t judge me or reduce me to one small aspect of myself at that moment. Instead, they open me to reflection and to action.
Similarly, think of what our words do when we say “you are mistaken,” or “she is homeless.” Again, we plunge ourselves into judging another, and reducing that other to our verdict rather than saying instead “I’d like to explain myself better” or thinking about potential acts of kindness.
You can always think of a replacement for “am/are/is” thinking, in a way that makes you an agent of kindness and a wielder or your own intentions. I have found, in making this change, that my thoughts of kindness to the world around me increase, and it makes my writing and communication stronger as an added bonus.1
The language of external, abstract obligation tends to separate us from our own inner sense of purpose and our opportunities to inspire collaboration with others. Words like “should”2 introduce a sort of implied ultimatum into our thinking and communication. “I should finish this,” or “I should meditate every day” — well, what if I don’t? How much more constructive for myself if I say “I will finish this,” or “I will meditate every day so that I can think and act more mindfully.”
And when we communicate with others, every “should” shuts down a means for us to create shared mission, when a simple “let’s” can rally and inspire instead.
So, I see little use for “should” in my own life as I pursue my own kindness practice. Directed at myself, it feels like a weapon against self-compassion and personal motivation. Directed at others, it feels like a power play and a disacknowledgement of the value and energy my interlocutor can contribute to whatever goal or context we share.
I’ve only just begun to focus on the word “not,” on my intention to avoid it, and on the mechanics of how to do so. Rather than thinking in negative terms, I would rather think positively, using statements that frame things in terms of what I see, feel, want, intend, etc. But my thinking depends heavily on dialectical contrasts, where I want to say something like “does not X, but instead Y.” If “Y” matters more, then why put focus on X at all? While contrast does help create clarity, I’ve started to think that I would rather use positive than negative contrasts (as I am doing even in this sentence by stating it as an active, positive preference).3 Dropping “not” opens up the opportunity to think more consciously about change, growth, evolution, development, etc.
Reduced use of “not” ties into the practice of kindness because it gives greater faith to what or who I am thinking about, rather than what I think about them, or my negative judgements about them. Rather than negating a perception in my own mind, I am trying to look more carefully at that matter from the external point of view. In other words, I only have to say something “is not” or “does not” if somehow, I am combatting something I previously concluded or imagined.
Honestly, I struggled to articulate my thoughts about “not” without saying “not,”and I don’t think they have fully developed. But I do remain convinced with all the certainty of strong intuition that avoiding it, along with “is” and “should,” will make me a stronger, kinder person.
- One exception: don’t drive yourself crazy trying to replace “to be” when it’s just for grammatical purposes, in cases such as “I am going,” “it is raining,” etc.
- Their cousins “must,” “have to,” and “need to” have similar effects.
- I am thinking of “positive” and “negative” here in philosophical terms rather than meaning “only say nice things and think nice thoughts.” To “posit” is to put something forward or assert it, rather than contradict or negate.