Brain, Things I Can, Writing

87. Things I Can Exchange: Not for Is

Volunteers in the study were asked to hold a grip sensor as they heard a variety of verbs related to manual actions, like ‘throw’ or ‘scratch’, in different sentence structures. The researchers observed a significant increase in the strength of participants’ grip when words were presented in an affirmative sentence, but no such reaction when the same action words were presented in a negative context, such as ‘don’t throw’.

Writing advice from an unknown source: Replace any negative statement with an affirmative one.

“He does not go” becomes “he stays.”
“The delivery hasn’t shown up” becomes “the package has yet to arrive.”
“I haven’t showered” becomes “I need to shower” or “Let me clean up” or “I’m a fragrant mess.”

It seems simple enough. A game, really. It starts as play then becomes imperative. Then mission.

Within a week, the backspace pinkie is stiff from exertion. Everywhere, evidence of The Not’s tenacity. It has staged a silent coup. It infests newspaper articles, blog posts, journal articles, notes from friends. It has laid waste to coherence.

The war in Syria didn’t start yesterday. Neither did the mass exodus of refugees fleeing violence, bombs, gunfire and the Islamic State. It shouldn’t have been very difficult to guess that the more than two million displaced persons in Lebanon and Turkey weren’t going to stay there permanently.

A topic as urgent as the Syrian refugee crisis deserves bolder language than this. Indeed, if a strong collective grip is required — which it most certainly is — then we must claim the affirmative.

It is difficult to unseat the hegemony of The Not. It fertilizes the lexicon of the mundane. It renders every work exchange an enervating yoke of words.

Please note that you will not receive reimbursement for any expenses that were not pre-approved.

In reviewing student registration, I notice that you have not yet enrolled in classes.

The Not is insidious. Official statements, procedure documents, email. It’s an epidemic of Not-ness, a blight of tort-skittish (at best) and enfeebling (at worst) dissimulation.

Lately, I have joined the fledgling resistance. I engage in tiny acts of rebellion, planting The Is inside enemy lines.

You will only be reimbursed for pre-approved expenses.

Your registration for fall needs attention. Please enroll in classes.

For months now, I’ve crept in and swept from the corners every No, Not, Won’t, Can’t, Never, No one, and Nothing. Even here. I start to write, I’m not sure why I do this. Then backspace-backspace, I type instead, I have a vague sense that this is a small yet mighty act.

In the face of a force debilitating yet opaque, this is guerilla warfare. Take the stairs. Pack the lunch. Floss.

These tedious, tiny, endless repetitions build a habit’s muscle.

I cannot imagine. . . Pause, backspace, begin again: I am beginning to grasp. . .

Speech tests loyalty. It is tricky without a delete key, trickier still when wading through a cornucopia of words for No. I try to speak my affirmative resistance, even in the toughest exchanges, like the ones where I have to tell my colleagues I absolutely cannot do the task they are about to add to my load. I begin slowly and move in at an oblique angle. Here is what we’ve got to get done. I can manage parts 3 and 4. How will we tackle 1, 2, and 5?

It feels like faking it. Like spin, like a shell game.

Maybe it is.

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash.

When language preordains surrender, the mind itself dismisses the integrity of the brush, the constitution of the paint. Legerdemain is more than acceptable. It is necessary.

It is the choice tactic for freeing a psychology of Not.

Take depression. Pattern of thought? Chemistry of brain? Depression is both hostage and guard in the army of Not. Play a recording of helpless, overwhelmed chatter often enough and it carves a deep groove in the mind. Most adults hear “Happy Birthday” and the Pledge of Allegiance only a few times a year but we know them — know them — with flawless, unconscious certainty. Just imagine how deep the cut when the muzak of doubt and abuse runs on a background loop for years (decades) beyond childhood.

The Not is a devoted mascot, plodding in its relentless mimicry of cheer, pulling for the victory of defeat. Square Not, whipping Not, ankle to stone, dragging a body and mind further down into — then under — its perceived limits.

Even to the committed, it may appear that a negative, the essential Not-ness of a situation, is the only option. What then? How do you fill a hole when an inverted opposite falls limp?

“Mom, can you come pick me up early after school early?”

The Not clings. Presses its advantage. No, I can’t. No, I have work, a commute, 15 deadlines licking and nipping at my cuffs. No.

This is how a thought into a feeling into language becomes a lifelong habit, as sticky as a curse. The Not struts but its snarl is all mask. Underneath, The Not is a feeble response. The Not is a failing grip.

Something more than a linguistic coin-flip is required.

The answer is a spin and lift. Strength imagined (even in its supposed absence), strength spoken, strength affirmed. Is whirls skyward into gold floss.

Name the Is.

“I’ll pick you up right at 6 and we can go to the park, rollerblading, biking, or home for some quiet time together.”

The linguist plays the word game because it’s a fun diversion.

The warrior, because she trusts the small, steady shift of perception.

Absence to presence.

Passive to power.


Science Newsline coverage of PLOS ONE research by Pia Aravena and colleagues from the L2C2, Institute of Cognitive Sciences (CNRS/UCBL), France, December 2012.

From Miguel Urban’s piece in The World Post, September 8, 2015.

From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), 1884.

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