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Jewish World Review
Oct. 11, 2007
/ 29 Tishrei 5768
Is is Dangerous
Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn
It took me years to realize the potency and destructiveness of the word
"I swear," he said to me, shaking his head, "she is so stupid!"
I cut him off quickly with, "Stupid? Is she stupid? Didn't she graduate college?"
"Well, yes," he stammered, "but please, how could someone do something like that?"
"Okay," I answered, "that's a different question. To figure out what was in her head, we have to ask her, but before we do that, I'm still interested in your use of the word, 'stupid.' Is she or isn't she stupid?"
"No, she isn't ordinarily stupid," he concluded with a deep sigh, slinking into the cushions as if wishing he wouldn't have to get out of them and start dealing with the mess in his life.
"You see," I point out, "the problem is not so much with the word 'stupid,' as it is with the word, 'is.' For example, if you said, "She is acting as if she were stupid, which is really strange since I know she is smart," you'd have a whole different meaning, one which really expresses how you feel without sounding like you know everything and you're passing judgment on her. I'm not crazy about the word 'stupid' in any case, but the word 'is' makes it sound like you've come down from Mount Sinai with The Answers. You don't want to do that, I'm sure."
As Peter looked at me, I could see a little ray of light in his eyes, the dawn of a certain awareness.
"Is that why she has told me so many times, 'You think you know it all' and 'You're not G-d, you know'?"
"Could be," I answered. Beware of the word 'is.'"
It took me years to realize the potency and destructiveness of the word, "is." Once one person utters any sentence with the word "is" in it, you don't even realize that you can question it; it sounds so final. For example, "That dress is not attractive."
"Ahem. To whom, may I ask? To you, maybe, but not to someone else."
"You've got the wrong marketing strategy." Sez who? As you can see, all the close relatives of the verb "to be" fall into the same no-no category. Here we have a "have" that sounds once again like a pronouncement of the ultimate truth. "Do" is another one in the category.
"You're an introvert."
"You'll just keep repeating the same mistakes."
"I am not successful."
"I don't make friends easily."
"This project will fail."
Pronouncements. Certainty. A crystal ball. That's the most obvious common element in all of the above statements. But there is another factor, more subtle, that makes them so toxic: The suggestion that the speaker somehow "has the goods," is more aware, is stronger, better, smarter, and more capable than the one who is being labeled, and as such, the one who is labeled has no voice with which to rebut.
It is the rendering of the listener to the position of inferior because the speaker seems to "know" that makes the use of the word "is" toxic. This is even true of statements in which the speaker puts himself down. Those statements, clearly, are echoes of judgments made against him by others, long ago, and then made his own. When a person says he is not successful or does not make friends easily, it is not the result of an objective look at his life, but rather simply the regurgitating of old put-downs that he has absorbed only too well probably because the person who said them to him used the word "is" so many times that the idea got drilled into him without his even realizing what was happening.
"So," you're going to ask me, "Are you saying I can't make the comment 'It is raining outside'?" Obviously, the word "is" has its place. If all concerned would readily agree, just by looking out the window that it, indeed, is raining outside, then the verb "to be" is a helpful statement of shared reality. It's only when not everyone would agree on what "is" and perhaps most significant in the process of doing that labeling, someone has been put down or lost his or her "voice" that we better be really cautious before using any form of the verb "to be."
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JWR contributor Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn is an Orthodox Marriage & Family Therapist. To comment, please click here. To visit her website, please click here.
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© 2007, Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn