The Snarky Assbadger and I attended parochial school as kids. On the wall outside the church connected to the school was a phrase from John 3:16: Whoever believes in him will have eternal life.
My mom taught me to read very early, because I used to follow her everywhere.
She also bought me a typewriter, but I kept messing up drafts of my first novel — Skate Brakes Don’t Work, and Other Stories of Calamity Jane [Jane, a Calamity.] — and having to start completely over, which is why this very dramatic photo of me weeping over the keyboard of my Royal Typewriter exists:
I read anything and everything that crossed my path: cereal boxes, food labels, shampoo bottles, record liner notes, pamphlets, magazines, billboards…EVERYTHING.
(The only thing I didn’t ever get in the habit of reading was directions because I didn’t like to be told what to do. I’m sure this comes as a great surprise to anyone who knows me.)
So, every time I passed it, I read the church wall. And I knew, because I’d been told in church and school, that what was being promised on that church wall, in return for believing in Jesus, was a life that lasted forever. Eternal, I knew, meant always.
This was fine, except for the fact that somewhere along the way, I got ETERNAL and EXTERNAL confused.
So when I got really sick, and our babysitter tried to give me cough medicine, I put up a battle. I’d read other medicine labels. Mentholatum, for instance, had a warning: For External Use Only. There was no way in hell I was going to take that nasty, chalky, cherry-flavored cough medicine for the rest of my life!
I mean, what if I lived to be really old — like 35 or 40? That would mean I’d be taking that horrible medicine for YEARS. Even at the age of 5, I understood that I wasn’t in any position to be taking on lifelong obligations. I mean, I couldn’t even get the damn typewriter to work…
That was the 1970s, when For External Use Only was the only warning on our labels. Back then, it was assumed that, since people managed to keep themselves alive from day to day, they must possess some modicum of common sense.
Now, however, we live in a world where it is necessary to mark everything from flip flops to drill bits For External Use Only, lest someone eat them and sue the manufacturer when their lower intestine erupts.
I once saw an episode of My Strange Addiction in which a woman confessed to having systematically chomped her way through the bed mattress of each of her family members (beginning with her mother’s mattress, which I thought indicated some underlying trouble in that relationship… I may be wrong), so now that I think about it, maybe the assumption of complete, rodent-like stupidity in the general population has some merit.
I got ETERNAL/EXTERNAL sorted out eventually, but until I was about 40, I thought that the words to America’s song were “Venture a highway in the sunshine…” as in, Hey Joe, I see that you’re lost; why don’t you venture a highway, try it out, see if a road trip makes you feel better? It’s actually Ventura Highway, of course. Funny that the chorus (“alligator lizards in the air”) didn’t give me any trouble.
My daughter, when she was little, thought the words to AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds were “Dirty jeans, not good jeans, dirty jeans and they’re not good jeans” — which, let’s face it — are actually much nicer lyrics than the real ones.
And then there’s ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down. The chorus, supposedly, is “Don’t bring me down, grooss” – which is some word Jeff Lynne made up to fill the space. But of course, everyone heard it as “Bruce,” and eventually, Lynne himself began to sing it as Don’t bring me down, Bruce in concert. I am desperate for a friend named Bruce, so that any time he says anything even remotely disagreeable, I can sing, “Don’t bring me down, Bruce!” It will be a short-lived friendship….
The addition or deletion or substitution of a word can make a huge difference in how you experience something — little words like please, or the difference between I like you and I love you, or I want you and I need you. Some years ago, I had an interim rector who proved this point every Sunday by adjusting one little phrase in the liturgy.
It’s supposed to go like this: the priest does all the preparation for the Eucharist, filling the chalice with wine and gathering the bread or wafers, and then he or she blesses the bread and wine with a recollection of the Last Supper from the Gospels. After this has been done, the priest who is running the service says: The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.
This interim rector didn’t change much; it wasn’t like he went completely off-script and started riffing the liturgy. Rather, he simply said, “These are the Gifts of God, and you are the People of God...take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”
Not a big change, but let me tell you, after hearing the liturgy at least once a week for more than 30 years, his little change caught my attention! I sat up in my pew and realized, perhaps for the first time ever, that this liturgy was speaking directly to me: a person of God. As I walked up to receive Communion, I felt — also for the first time ever — truly connected to the millions of believers who’d participated in this ritual before me. I knew, because of that small change in the wording, that I was seen, and acknowledged, by God
So the moral of this story is, choose your words carefully. You never know when your word choice will change the way someone sees himself, or his life!