When I was in college, one of my favorite professors uttered a line that still makes me laugh to this day:
“There’s no such thing as a stupid question, but this room is sure filled with inquisitive idiots!”
As a teacher, I will admit that this line has crossed my mind a handful of times in my own classroom experiences, though I doubt it would land as well amidst my 15 year olds as it did in a room full of soon to be college graduates, so I’ve never dared to say it myself.
And in fact, the reason that it played at all for my college professor, is he was actually a guy who loved questions and the dialogue they could bring about. He encouraged questioning and wanted us to be inquisitive. I also very much doubt he believed any of us idiots.
Ok…we may have displayed occasional idiocy. But I don’t think he believed any of us were permenant idiots!
I’d also like to think that, as an English professor, he also loved the oxymoronic nature of the phrase. Inquisitive and idiot are not an adjective and noun that normally get paired together. In fact, the word “idiot,” as a noun probably elicits a host of other, less complimentary adjectives: stupid, dull, ignorant, foolish.
On the flipside, you may associate the adjective “inquisitive” with researchers, scientists, reporters, or investigators.
So why does any of this matter?
When I started to think about this post, I went and asked Josh a semi-loaded question:
If you could only be known as one thing for the rest of your life, would you rather be known as a Christian or kind?
I picked this particular question for my husband because his Christianity is a big part of his identity, whereas kind is pretty…well…normal.
I watched him reason it out for a minute, and before he could answer, quickly rephrased to:
Or, if you could only be known as one thing for the rest of your life, would you rather be known as a Christian or generous?
Josh is not one to fall quickly into a word trap, so I offered up my own response to prompt him into the conversation.
If I had to pick, I think I’d rather be known as kind or generous.
And I reasoned through it like this.
We can label things (including people!) in one of two ways. We either have a title to give them, or a category they belong to (a noun), or we have descriptors to give them (adjectives).
Nouns often elicit adjectives to go with them. Just as we can describe the noun “idiot” with a bunch of equally dull-witted adjectives, we can apply descriptors to just about every noun label we may use. However, those descriptors are going to be widely dependent on lens and experiences.
Take Christian for example. To someone with a healthy spiritual life who is thriving in a Christian faith community, like Josh or myself, it may feel like claiming the label of Christian is a win-win because to be known as a Christian would be to be known as both kind and generous by default. That’s what Christains are, right?
But certainly there are those who have had different church experiences that might call the Christian church, and those who participate in it, something else? Intolerant? Dogmatic? Out of touch? Conservative? These descriptors shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s paid attention to the cultural discourse surrounding the church, but they might surprise you personally if someone found out you were a Christian and then made those assumptions about your character.
Pick a different noun. In fact, let’s play a game. I’ll list a few common labels, and see what the first adjectives that pop into your head are for each one. Ready?
If we compared lists, there’s no way we’d all be in full agreement on all our descriptors for these groups.
By comparison, if I asked what these descriptors meant:
We would most likely generate similar definitions of how these characteristics show up in our experiences and interactions with each other.
It’s not that titles don’t matter, group affiliation doesn’t matter, and the communities to which we belong don’t matter. Rather, if we allow ourselves to be defined by a thing, then we allow ourselves to be defined by everyone else’s perception of that thing. And those perceptions can sometimes mean we let someone define us as something we don’t want to be or actually aren’t at all.
And if you think that you are pretty good at associating people’s noun labels with their actual adjectives, you’re probably wrong! Harvard University continues to study this through an online project, Project Implicit, that tracks some of the common associations that people unconsciously may have toward certain groups and labels. You can try many of their tests online here -> https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html
Which is why I believe we should want to live by our adjectives not by our nouns. Sure it’s great that I can call myself a teacher, a wife, a musician, a director, a writer, a runner, etc. But am I also intelligent, loving, creative, organized, eloquent, and healthy? One does not necessarily suppose the other. And if I had to choose between the two lists as to how I was introduced, I’d take the second!
In this time of much uncertainty, so many of the things and people we associated with stability and consistency failed…except the things that were actually, genuinely, stable and consistent! Now is as good a time as any to take stock of your adjectives, and the adjectives of those things to which you hold close. Who is kind, loyal, friendly, compassionate, generous, and understanding in a time when many of our other noun labels have been stripped away or placed on hold?
When it comes down to your nouns and adjectives, forget about diagramming sentences.
It should be about how you are going to live your life instead.