On being … rekindled

By Ingrid Sapona

When I hear about a book that sounds interesting, I go on the Toronto Public Library website to borrow it or put my name on the waiting list for it. With popular books, the wait is sometimes so long that I forget why I thought it would be an interesting read. My memory lapse, however, often proves magical as some books end up feeling like the embodiment of Lao Tzu’s idea that “when the student is ready the teacher will appear.”

This week when I got a notification one of my holds was available, I was surprised to learn it was Barack Obama’s new book. I had placed a hold on it when it was released in November, but the waiting list was long. I suspect that the demand was so high, the library probably ended up purchasing additional copies. Anyway, mindful of the fact that e-books with waiting lists can’t be renewed, I downloaded it immediately and later that afternoon I started it.

After pausing to reflect on the dedications and the brief inspirational poems, I dove into the Preface. I didn’t get too far before I was overcome with emotion. On one level, I felt like I was meeting a friend who I’d not seen for awhile. You know that feeling – part wonderment at being able to pick up where you left off and part sudden awareness of things you didn’t even realize you had been missing. By about the third page of the Preface I realized what it was I’ve been missing: the beauty of language. That, in turn, made me aware of my resentment toward how pathetically small our social vocabulary has become over the past four years. The main reason for this is that Trump has the vocabulary and syntax a third grader.

Initially, I think people assumed his word choice was calculating. His use of simple words like stupid, fake, nasty, and loser made him seem relatable, so the argument went. But, after listening to him for four years, it’s obvious that his word choices are a reflection of the limits of his vocabulary. After all, even when talking about things he likes, or when he’s bragging about his tremendous skills and abilities, the only word he can think of is “great”. Well, in fairness, occasionally he throws in a “the likes of which” for emphasis.

Over time, it’s also became clear that Trump’s limited vocabulary is a reflection of the immaturity of his analytical skills. Even when the proverbial chips were down and everything was on the line (in his mind), Trump was unable to describe the Supreme Court’s decision this past week as anything other than a kid in a schoolyard might. For those who may have missed his insightful tweet about it, he characterized the U.S. Supreme Court justices as having “chickened out” when they denied the Texas Attorney General’s motion to block the ballots of voters in various battle-ground states.

Perhaps most concerning about Trump’s limited vocabulary is how true a reflection it is of his morality. After all, when the primary word you use to describe others is stupid, describing members of the military who have died as suckers or losers is hardly a stretch.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that only big words can convey complex, important ideas. Far from it. Simple words can certainly be used to convey nuanced thinking. Here’s an example of Obama’s use of the single syllable word “watch” in the second paragraph of the Preface: “I hoped to give an honest rendering my time in office – not just a historical record of key events that happened on my watch…” Can you imagine Trump talking about himself as watching over the country’s wellbeing? Trump’s more likely to use the temp to garner attention, as in: “Hey – watch me!”

In just the first few pages of Obama’s book I was reminded of all sorts of words that have been sorely absent from public discourse over the past four years – words like humankind, norms, service, and safeguard. I’m sure Trump’s familiar with these words and their definitions, but the absence of them from his vocabulary speaks volumes about how little he cares about the ideas they represent.

Obama’s book has been just the balm I need now to lift my spirits remind me of the possibilities.  So, here’s to reacquainting ourselves with the dictionary in 2021 and to the return of the kind of well-developed vocabulary needed for thoughtful, in-depth analysis, and polite public discourse.

Happy Holidays everyone – look out for yourself AND for each other!

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


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