A Sadly Funny Word & Life's Ugliest Truth
I’ve found myself reflecting on words and life, this past week, since finding out that Merriam-Webster dictionary recently changed the definition of ‘literally’ to include the ancillary meaning ‘figuratively’ to reflect common usage. It’s simultaneously funny and tragic. We’ve become such idiots and so loose with the language that up is down and down is up. So many people say “literally” as an intensive – a sort of mid-sentence exclamation point; “His head literally exploded when he found out his wife was pregnant! It was crazy!” – that the word has literally lost its true meaning. It now carries both its original meaning and, more or less, the exact opposite meaning.
Though a bit of an opposite parallel (sure, what the hell, as long as we’re playing with the language), it sheds a bit of light on how ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’, two seemingly opposite words came to mean the same thing; cleave to, cleave from; bone and debone; caregiver and caretaker; regardless and irregardless; and, of course, shit and the shit (for the young’uns in the crowd).
And I know this is all clever and well and good to think about but of little consequence, right? Well, yeah, until we stumble across two particular words that have essentially opposite meanings, despite an identical Latin/Greek root. They offer a bit of truly fascinating insight into the human experience, engendering a deep “Hmmmmm” inside, as the mind begins to chew the bone.
The original Latin word was pati, which had a general meaning of ‘suffering or pain’. Recognizing that Greek became the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, even in what had previously been Latin-speaking regions of the Empire, there was a great amount of cross-pollination of languages, a couple thousand years back. The effect, in this case, is that the Greek word pathos arose, bearing a similar meaning of pain/suffering. Sparing you the boring details, this led to the present-day word pathology, which of course means disease. A pathologist is one who studies diseases.
But where it gets really fascinating is the bifurcation that happens somewhere along the way. Pathos becomes equated, quite possibly as a result of Christian influences on language in those early centuries, with fundamentally the opposite meaning of disease. Pathos evolves into meaning passion – the two words becoming almost interchangeable in theatre.
The net effect is that one word – pati/pathos – takes on two very dissimilar meanings – disease/pain and passion/that-which-inspires.
That rather upside-down twist of history has me stroking my beard, nodding. More than just on the level of words, but in fact in experience of life, that which inspires us and quickens our blood is simultaneously quite often that which is our curse; that which breathes life into us, inspiring passion, also often brings us the most suffering.
The greatest dreams bring long roads of hardship. Conversely, our greatest difficulties in life and our most treacherous paths invariably offer the most potent wisdom and medicine for life.
There is simply no way to escape the truth that that which creates destroys, and that which seems to destroy is also life’s greatest creator. That which inspires us kills us, at least at times. That which seems to kill us brings so much life to us in so many ways.
It is one of life’s ugliest, yet most beautiful paradoxes: creation and destruction are forever inextricably dancing; pain and joy live in the same breath; blessings and curses can never be extricated from their mad embrace. We, it seems, need only have the eyes to see, need only have the courage to look into the eye of the beast that afflicts us in any given moment or period of life.
I’m reminded of my favorite quote by author Robert K. Hudnut, “Everything is ultimately positive, no matter how proximately negative.” Everything. It’s a terribly offensive proposition, yanking us out of our caterwauling at life’s injustices, great and small. Everything awful holds in its claw the beauty and blessing of the gods – new life, new creations, new insights, and new inspirations. It is always that challenge that dogs us in life, one we often do our best to dodge – that calling to look inside the negative and find its blessing, the courage to crack open pain to find the new insights and new life it offers. Cancer and disease, shattered dreams, lost relationships, infidelity, death, loss, career failure, everything....everything holds deep wisdom and new passion. Invariably, death and decay hold the very fountain of new life inside them, if we but have eyes to see.
And so, the question we’re left chewing on is that one we’d quite rather not consider, “How is this awful thing truly the greatest blessing I could have been granted this day or in this lifetime?”
Now there is a question for the ages. There is a question that can be laid over any affliction, big or little, on any day. It is a question that, if tinkered with, expanded, and opened to some creative brainstorming, can unlock the deepest wisdom of life and whole new ways of living. Quite literally, pain can become passion, and suffering can bring new life.
How is your suffering today the very best thing that could’ve happened to you?
How is the way your life has turned out, up ‘til now, the very greatest gift from the gods?
-- Sven Erlandson, author of I Steal Wives: A Serial Adulterer Reveals the REAL Reasons More and More 'Happily Married' Women are Cheating; Spiritual But Not Religious; and Badass Jesus