Friday Speak Out!: Words! Words! Words!

Friday, March 27, 2015
by Lily Iona MacKenzie

I’ve been thinking about how loosely we use abstract words like love, happiness, and truth as if they had concrete, observable meaning. I tend to revolt from using love to close my email or other exchanges unless I really feel love for the person I’m corresponding with. It bothers me when people sign their correspondence “love” without considering whether or not the emotion really applies to the recipient. Maybe you feel loving towards someone on most days, but not every day. Isn’t it deceitful to say “love” if you aren’t feeling it at the moment? Wouldn’t such a response seem confusing? It leads the reader to believe that the writer actually has such strong feelings, that somehow we’re part of the writer’s inner circle. Often that isn’t true.

Or even if one is part of the writer’s inner circle, it doesn’t mean that person actually is feeling love for the recipient. It just becomes a reflexive action: Love, Lily. Love, Hilda. Love, Anyone.

My concern is that these words then become meaningless, and once words no longer match what they are supposed to express, there’s not only a breakdown in communication but also a collapse of the word’s integrity. How can one use the word love again with any sincerity if it’s been used casually, with people one doesn’t really feeling toward.

So what’s my problem with happiness? We have a tendency to assume that if we use happy to describe someone’s feelings, we’ve said it all. That person must be happy. Therefore, there’s no need to look further or question what might actually be going on. Happiness is a nebulous state. I’m never sure when I’m happy or not because there are so many varieties of that emotional construct. One person’s happiness could be another person’s delusion or manic behavior.

When someone is really high, either from drugs or because something positive has happened in that person’s life, we generally say “that person is so happy.” Yet the individual may be in a state that has nothing to do with what I might equate with happiness—a sense of well being: all is right with my world at the moment and I need nothing else to make myself feel better. But the person we describe as “so happy” because he/she is claiming that condition could be depressed and using happiness as a cover for his/her real emotional level.

Okay, I sound like a Grinch, but I hate lies, either intentional or unintentional. I make them. My friends make them. It seems part of being human to lie at times. But the more it happens between friends and myself, the less I trust either them or me. And that’s the truth. But, again, what is truth? And how do we know it when it happens? If someone is accustomed to not telling the truth, then we’re caught up again in that dishonest web of deceit, where we claim one thing while really feeling another.

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Lily Iona MacKenzie has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 140 American and Canadian venues. The recent issue of Notes Magazine featured her as the spotlight author, showcasing her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Fling, one of her novels, will be published in July 2015. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2016. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She also teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, is vice-president of USF's part-time faculty union, paints, and travels widely with her husband. Visit her blog at:

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!



Unknown said...

Lily - you wrote so well about one of my pet peeves. One of the greatest lessons I've learned is to allow the presence of many feeling states in life. "Happy" is pleasant, but as a constant goal, can be dangerous - we're not meant to be "happy" all the time, and thinking so makes for internal anguish when there's a different (natural and normal) emotion present. Thanks for this!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Lily! It reminds me of Louis CK's standup of how we don't think about how we talk, we just go to the top shelf with words like "HILARIOUS" or "AMAZING" or "GENIUS" and it pulls the true meaning out of it. "Dude, it was AMAZING." Really? You were AMAZED by a basket of chicken wings? What are you going to say if something really amazes you? LOL. If you get a chance, check it out on YouTube: Louis CK "How We Talk" Clip.

Lily Iona MacKenzie said...

Thanks for the additional examples of how words are misused!

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