Monday, September 10, 2012


Have you ever noticed that context is everything when it comes to words? One word might mean different things in different contexts. Pithy sayings, which I adore, are rarely ever applicable in every circumstance. Honesty, for instance, is the best policy unless a wife asks her husband, "Does this skirt make my butt look fat?"

There's really only one right answer to that question.

I realized recently that I accept this variability of context without really thinking about it, and blame my training as a literary critic. Literary critics study lots of different perspectives on the meaning of literary texts. These perspectives come with fancy labels (New Historicism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, New Criticism...) and dense jargon (dissonance, chiasmus, exegesis, hemistich...), but the main idea behind literary criticism is that finding meaning in literature is all about perspective. How you read and what you look for determine what the poem or novel or short story means.

In other words, Hamlet doesn't mean one thing. It means lots of different things, depending on how you look at it. And the more ways you look at it, the more meanings you find.

Dr. Nancy West, a grad-school professor of mine, shared a simile that makes sense of this. A piece of literature is like a gemstone. Each literary theory cuts one facet in the gemstone. The more facets a gemstone has, the more light it reflects, the more beautiful it is, the more meaning it has.

So if you haven't read Hamlet since you were 16 and you pick it up 30 years later, your experience will be different because your perspective on life has changed. For instance, you might have been frustrated with Hamlet for not killing his uncle outright when you were 16, but at 46, you might pity Hamlet for his position between a rock and a hard place because you've been in that position yourself. Broadening your perspective enriches the meaning of the play.

I enjoy sharing pithy little sayings with George when surfing Pinterest, but as often as not, he doesn't see the same humor or truth in the statements. His brain immediately searches for holes in the argument of the saying, exceptions, times when it doesn't apply, while my brain is enjoying the saying for all the times it does apply.

I'm pretty sure there's a book that explains our different perspectives on pithy little sayings, maybe with mention of Venus versus Mars, gatherers versus hunters, double-X versus that pesky Y chromosome.

I don't expect universal truth from words. In fact, I pretty much expect words to be ambivalent, multivalent, contextual...and fun to gather because of it. This explains why I'm a writer and not, say, a United States Air Force aviator, like George was.

Can you imagine the mess I would make of orders issued in the heat of an air war? The terse and tense environment of a B-1 cockpit crew tasked with putting bombs on targets should never, ever be entrusted to someone like me. The same goes for brain surgery and engineering.

Do you want me to design an ambivalent bridge?

Good grief, no!

Within my abilities, I'm strong, smart, and capable, and the same goes for George. We are just two very differently cut gemstones, don't you think? Life (or God, depending on your beliefs) has cut different facets in each of us, has given us sparkle and shine, and in the process has cut away the most flawed and weakest parts. What's left behind is good and meaningful, and in a very real sense, we balance each other.

Expectation, however, is the heart of disappointment. When we expect someone else to be what we want them to be and not who they are, who life or God has made them, we're being unfair. We try to cut their facets ourselves, and then we are disappointed because they aren't doing things the way we want them to, because they think differently from the way we want them to think.

Love can save us from disappointment. Love is the light we shine on others that helps them sparkle, the light that others shine on us. We're are not here to cut facets in others, like a literary critic hacking into Hamlet. We're not here to shape people for our convenience, but rather to respect them and to help them be the best person they can be.

Parents of children with disabilities know this. We see the sparkle when the rest of the world sees flaws. But that's because we see the context, too, the setting in which that gem sparkles. We see our children from multiple perspectives, not just from the single perspective a stranger might apply when watching a toddler pitch a fit at the grocery store.

Context changes over time, with time, with each new facet, with the changing directions of light reflected.

We all have a context.

These musings take me to a funny place this morning. You see, I'm signing George up for another Ironman Wisconsin today. He can't do the online registration because he's at work. That particular facet for endurance sport has never been cut into my gemstone and frankly it doesn't make any sense whatsoever to me, but each time George does an Ironman race, he's happier, healthier, more himself.

I want to shine my light on that. So I'll stalk the online registration page today.

For him.

And I'll carry his bike pump on race day and cheer him on and be proud of him.

Because I love it when he sparkles, even if the sparkle comes from sweat crystalized on his triathlon suit.

How are you shining light on loved ones? Are you considering their context, the greater purpose of their lives that gives them their sense of meaning and joy? Are you trying to cut them into a shape you find pleasing, convenient, easy?


  1. Only when it comes to fewer stacks on MY dining room table.

  2. Love this post. I've been dating a a great man who is dealing with the guilt of ending a 16 year marriage. Since we started dating I could see the change in him, how happy(and not feeling guilty about being happy) he is, the joy in his voice when we talk. He said it was because of me but I tell him he always had it in him, he just never let it out. Watching someone bloom is an amazing experience!

  3. This is an insightful and compassionate post, Susan. I can totally relate, since I am an English major married to an engineer/athlete.

  4. Wow, great post! Thought provoking, and so well written. I'm going to have to put some serious thought into how to shine a light on my husband rather than being frustrated that he can not do anything on any sort of schedule! It's a challenge.


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