A Resolution: Chapel talk by science teacher Eva Shultis

I have never made a New Year’s Resolution before. And that’s because I’m too much of a hipster for New Year’s Resolutions. And also I’m already perfect.

Really, I’ve never made a New Year’s Resolution before, because whatever thing I thought of has always felt forced. But this time, there’s something I want to change that just became obvious.

So, in case any of you are still looking for a resolution of your own, I’d like to share mine with you, and invite you to try it on for size.

Here it is: I want to stop saying things that I don’t really mean.

Because I believe deeply in the power and importance of words. And I’ve realized that in the average day, I say an astounding number of things that I don’t mean. It’s not that I’m being deliberately insincere – I honestly don’t even think about it. But that’s the problem.

For me, it began as an attempt to be more “socially graceful,” but then gradually, sneakily, became totally unconscious. So now I automatically say “sorry” for things that weren’t really my fault, I say “I’m good!” even if I’m not really good, and “oh, no problem!” when it really was kind of a problem. And I know I’m not the only one who’s speaking this secret language of politeness, because we’ve all participated in this conversation at some point, usually when we’re passing each other at warp speed in opposite directions:

“Hey, how’s it going?” “Good! How are you?” “Good!” …

So if you know me pretty well and you see me around and all I say is “hi,” please don’t think I don’t care. In fact, I probably like you too much to stomach the idea of having such a completely empty, non-conversation with you.

Much like substituting “hi” for “how’s it going,” all of these automatic insincerities are fixable by pausing for an extra moment, and maybe choosing a different word. I have three more that I’d like to suggest to you today. 

Number one: Apologies.

“Sorry” is the most over-used word in my vocabulary. A few months ago, somebody told me I say “sorry” too much, and I immediately apologized. Now, I’ve broken it down, and there are two kinds of apologies that aren’t actually apologies.

  1. Things we feel bad about, but did not have control over.
  2. Things we had control over, but do not feel bad about.

In order for an apology to be meaningful, it has to satisfy both of these criteria: you have to be responsible for what happened, and you have to regret what you did. If not, you are saturating the market with meaningless apologies. The one thing I actually understand about Economics is that when there’s an excessive supply of something, the value of that good decreases.  Another Peddie teacher told me about an apology email she received from a student last term, I’m going to read it to you, get ready, because it’ll be over before you know what hit you:

“Sorry about sleeping in class today (DNO)”

If we were playing The Price is Right right now, how much would that apology be worth to you? Sorry about sleeping in class, DNO - you just decreased the value of your apology.

In this way, words are similar to currency. We can manufacture as many of them as we want, but we need to remember – inflation applies. If you need a visual, think of Germany in the 1920s. They printed all this money to bail the country out of debt, and it became so worthless that people started using it as wallpaper, kindling, and toilet paper. It seems like a stupidly easy solution, but you can’t just print more money, and you can’t just say more “sorrys.” The real solution is to save your apologies for when you really mean it.

This idea leads us to Number two: Promises.

A lot of the talks you hear in this room are about saying “yes.” Just like groundhogs and robins, you’ll know it’s spring when nostalgic seniors start climbing up here to remind you, Peddie is an incredible place, take advantage of every opportunity, Carpe Diem… and they’re right. But the less glamorous flipside that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much is that it’s also important to learn how to say no to stuff.

Of course we want to say yes, because we want to do everything, we want to make everybody happy, and we’re afraid of letting people down. But beyond that moment of “yes,” our empty promises don’t help anybody. In fact, they’re worse - just like standing someone up for a date is a hundred times more egregious than turning them down. We think if we say yes, it’ll make the other person feel good, and it will for a little while… until we don’t call back or don’t show up and they have to gradually figure out for themselves that we didn’t really mean it. This can be avoided if we’re disciplined enough to pause and think, and brave enough to say no when we need to.

Last. Number three. I saved this one for the end, because it worries me the most. 
Number three, is the things you say that are thoughtlessly hurtful. The things you don’t mean that are still really damaging.

I am constantly surprised by the number of things at Peddie that are, apparently, “gay” and “retarded.” I’m surprised because I know this is not a bigoted place. You don’t need me to tell you that our GSA and Project Unify are awesome. And I’ve seen you all be deliberately kind to each other, every single day. But I’ve also seen you be unconsciously brutal.

So if you don’t usually think about it, please think about it now:

Would you still want to stand behind your words if you said something was “so retarded” to Mr. Mixon, and then later he told you about his brother who has Downs syndrome?
How about if you’re making fun of your best friend by telling him how “gay” he is, and then I introduce you to my girlfriend?

I know you don’t mean this stuff, which is why I’m confident in your ability to choose a different word. Harry Gensemer wrote my favorite DOSE of 2011 about this, back in September, and he had a whole list of alternatives for you. But I still hear gay and retarded around a lot, so now I’m asking you again to choose a different word – because even for those of us who shrug it off, it’s still subconsciously destructive to hear something you are or someone you love used as a synonym for “bad.”

So in these three pieces I just talked about, Apologies, Promises, and the Unconsciously Hurtful, if you weren’t spacing out, you may have noticed a contradiction. In the first two cases, whenever we wish that words could be enough on their own, they aren’t. But then, when we wish they wouldn’t matter so much, they suddenly do. It’s totally unfair. But it’s precisely the thoughtless, hurtful stuff we say that sticks in people’s minds.

When there’s no such thing as “off the record,” our best bet is to say things we’ll feel good about no matter who hears them. Maybe that means pausing for a moment, and choosing a different word. Maybe it means just saying less. Personally, I’d like to speak less and have the words I put out into the world be of higher quality.

I’ll leave you with an old joke about Michelangelo – somebody asked him how he created such incredible sculptures, and he said, well, I just start with a slab of marble, and take away everything that doesn’t look like David. I’m suggesting that to some extent, words work the same way.  If you can strip away everything you don’t mean, you’ll be left with words that mean something.

This room is full of people who have a lot of good things to say. So if you’d like to take me up on my resolution - Here’s to a new year full of words that do us justice.