“Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome
When you’re living out a dream”
– from “Everything is Awesome!!!” by Tegan and Sara, The Lego Movie
The song that opens The Lego Movie lists many things that are “awesome”:
- Blue skies
- Bouncy springs
- A Nobel prize
- A piece of string
- Dogs with fleas
- Allergies (which earned an exclamation point in the lyrics)
- A book of Greek antiquities
- Brand new pants
- A very old vest
- Everything you see or think or say
The song is cute. I have found myself repeating its catchy ditty in the shower. While I acknowledge the song is for kids, I wonder whether its easy-going message symbolizes something more insidious invading our culture and communication. We so often utilize catch-all words in place of thinking harder, making distinctions and being precise.
I do it and I suspect you do too. In a letter to a friend, I write “It was great seeing you.” Well, sure, but what do I mean by “great”? What specifically makes me use the word “great”?
Did I feel uplifted? Did I enjoy an aspect of our conversation? Which one? Why? Again, using specifics, why? The recipient of my letter doesn’t know. He or she must guess what I meant by “great.”
In speaking, how often do we tell a friend that someone else is a “good guy”? Or that it was “so terrific” seeing them the other day?
I realize these are niceties of conversation and communication lightly inculcated in us by cultural convention. And words like “great” and “terrific” and “nice” have a purpose in this context.
And yet, I feel dissatisfied. I feel disgruntled at myself when I write and say these words. Am I holding back something – some part of myself? Am I writing or speaking lazily? Why am I lazy? Is not my conversation partner worth the effort to find words and express my emotions and thoughts in a more precise way?
Last week, reading some letters by Ralph Waldo Emerson, I could not help feeling this deficit in myself and our culture. Here, he writes to his brother William, on January 6 and 9, 1827 from Charleston, South Carolina:
“I received with great joy a letter from you a few days since….I believe I recounted in that letter the plagues which had fallen upon me & which appear to have excited your kind curiosity. The cold has been so considerable here as to prevent me from deriving any signal benefit from the change of climate….I have but a single complaint, – a certain stricture on the right side of the chest, which always makes itself felt when the air is cold or damp…I have books & pens enough here to keep me from being desperately homesick but have not succeeded in overcoming certain physical & metaphysical difficulties sufficiently to accomplish any thing in the way of grave composition, as I had hoped.”
Here, he writes to the poet Walt Whitman, on July 21, 1855, from Concord, Massachusetts:
“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying & encouraging.”
Correspondents of the nineteenth century wrote and expected to read a more formal, sometimes flowery, verbiage than we do. But even from these short snippets, do you not detect more effort than we typically give our letters? We live in an age of fragments, emojis that supposedly convey emotion but more often transmit confusion, and hyper-fast back-and-forths. I understand; and yet I wonder what we have lost in this age.
At the least, I worry that we have lost precision – giving accurate witness to our inner thoughts and feelings. And that is a severe loss, for ourselves and those with whom we interface. Not awesome.
One way we can counteract this descent into imprecision is simply to ask the question from above and look for specific answers. “It was great seeing you” – what made it “great”? Did the person and I enjoy a short discussion about a book? Did we revel in our kids’s sports? Did we experience a unique moment?
In noting specifics, we paid attention. We sought uniqueness, quirkiness or idiosyncrasy. We recognized differentess in this moment; we discerned distinction.
We don’t need the flower and formality of the nineteenth century. “I appreciated your comments about that movie; it made me detach from my preconceptions about the director. I look forward to watching it in this new light you offered.”
Who wouldn’t welcome receiving such a comment or note?
Writing and speaking with greater detail and specifics touches deeper emotions and thoughts – in us as givers and receivers of comments, notes, and dialogue.
Everything isn’t awesome. Precision is.
Image created by Midjourney.