It’s interesting how language lives. It upgrades. It downgrades. It takes to the streets and to the wires and the wireless: it is news, radio and late night tv. Who would have ever imagined there would be an urban dictionary? Who could have predicted that words today would have such different meanings than they did yesterday?
Yep. How we use words is a-changin,’ and not just generation to generation, but person to person, thanks to popular culture characters and personalities in the news. We seem to keep finding new ways to express things for an impact. As Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, helped us discover, “Not so much” is a very useful expression. Other things he had to say, not so much.
One must guard, though, against the imprecision of words which may on the surface appear harmless, but in fact have significant impact. The word of concern to me right now is “sad.” Recently I have heard so many applications of “sad.” As in, that’s sad, they are so sad, that was just sad, such a sad country, a sad, sad person.
Is it sad? Or am I sad? Because these are two very different things that have become entwined, perhaps to our peril.
Much in our world today makes me feel sad, but it is not sad. It may be cruel, unjust, uncivil or unkind. It may be ignorant, ill-informed or ill-advised. It may be belligerent and abusive or fraudulent and deceptive. But I would challenge us to get better at addressing it by being more precise with our language.
Sad doesn’t capture it. Giving it the “sad” label, which has become popular, may be intended to express our discontent, but this misses the mark, and diminishes these:
Sad is… losing a parent, a child, a spouse, a beloved friend.
Sad is… getting a potentially deadly diagnosis.
Sad is… hearing your season, your career, your life is finished.
Sad is… you’re out of a job, evicted from your house, no longer welcome.
That is sadness. It is an emotion. Often accompanied by deep, gut-wrenching, heart-racking sobs which come from a depth you didn’t know you had. That is true sadness.
Using ‘that is sad’ for a behavior, choice, policy, proposal, or person is a stand in for our disappointment, discontent and perhaps even disbelief. We are angry, disgusted by what we see, hear or read. But that is not sad. We are sad. Let’s say what we mean.
Sad, in its current linguisity (if that’s not a word, it should be), as a label, is lazy. But more than this, it allows us to dismiss something we don’t like by concluding that this is terminal case. Nothing to do about this one. “That’s sad” has become an off-hand way to dismiss people, things, and practices. It’s a “safe” way to have the last word, pretending to have empathy because sad sounds like a feeling. I am entitled to my feelings. You can’t disagree with sad.
In fact, when used this way, sad is not a feeling, it’s a label; a cowardly way to assign a category to what we can’t or would rather not deal with — distancing and dismissing it all at once.
The thing is, you and I are sad for a reason. True sadness invites me to sit with you and tell you how sorry I am. It asks, “Can I help you?” “What may I do for you?” “How can I pray for you?”
Let’s not succumb to putting the sad label on people as a cushion to rest on. Who are we to decide who and who isn’t a hopeless human? We are made to help.
In the faith that I follow, there is no such thing; no one is hopeless and no cause is hopeless. Our Lord went looking for that one very lost sheep, and when he found it, he carried it home. I’ll bet that lost sheep was very, very sad. But Jesus left the rest behind just to search for him.
No one is hopelessly lost, but our language certainly can make them sound that way. Can we revive our language. When we say “that is sad,” is that what we really mean? Or are we simply parroting a phrase made popular by a very human being? Instead, when we are sad, can we say so?
Can we sound out our own feelings and then use our language precisely? to describe, to admit, to honor, and to speak truth in love. Because love changes things. It brought that lost sheep all the way back home.