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  • Writer's pictureAaron Hendon

Burning Down the House

It’s Just Semantics, Dude 

I don’t hate a lot, but I do hate two things:  

One is the NY Yankees, and the other is when people say, “It’s just semantics”.  

I run into this sometimes in coaching people about how to use language to get more of what they want (or to lose more of what they don’t want). 

The argument goes something like, “That’s just a little game you’re playing with language”, or “That’s cute, but I need some “real” coaching”.  

Are you kidding? Virtually, everything for a human being is semantics. Our lives are bound to semantics.  

Do you think Heidegger was fucking around when he said, “Language is the house of being”? 

Everything we touch, see, or feel, is instantly put into some semantic context which immediately shapes our experience of whatever we touch, see, or feel. 

Try to find three things in your life that don’t live for you semantically. 

Sure, we have experiences that transcend language, of this there is no doubt. The momentary awe felt seeing a sunrise, a glimpse of the divine when we see some piece of art, but these are fleeting wisps of time.  

At the precise moment we become conscious of these things, language descends upon us, and we box the experience into some semantic cage.  

It’s all semantics, dude. 

Got To vs Get To 

The difference between “got to” and “get to” is a fairly popular idea on the motivational speaker circuit with no one particular source I could find.  James Clear talks about it in Atomic Habits, Jim Rohn before him.   

You could interpret Hamlet’s conversation with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so”, in a way that fits the general idea of how we live lives rooted in our semantics. 

My point is, it’s not a new thought.  

And yet, changing that one letter, from “o” to “e” changes everything. 

(Unless you’re an “it’s just semantics” kinda person.) 

The implications are not unclear to us. 

When we have things we “got to do” we have built a house of obligation, burden, and domination. When we look at things as things “we get to do’, well then, we live a life full of privilege and opportunity, clearing the way for joy. 

Understanding this is not all that difficult. Living it is something else. 

The attempt to think “positively” and pretend we are happy about doing something we don’t experience joy for is the problem 

We are layering on positive thinking, saying we get to, when we feel otherwise.   

We are trying to fake it til we make it.  

And that has a place to be sure, but merely pouring "get tos" over things we hate doing will not get us there. 

What’s a girl to do? 

Training matters. 

Both the Navy SEALS and the ancient Buddhists say the same thing (and when those two disparate groups share a thought, we might want to pay attention). 

We don’t rise to the occasion; we sink to the level of our preparation.  

We are clear about this when it comes to physical activities. We go to the gym, we run marathons, we mountain bike, do yoga, etc. all to keep our bodies ready for the life we live (or prepare for the life we want to live). 

But can we train our brains to live a grateful life? 

The evidence is clear. Yes.  

Multiple studies over the last 50 years have demonstrated the value of mindfulness and meditation as tools to train our brains to interact with our environment gratefully. 

The practice of living gratefully is one of keeping ourselves on the lookout for where we can flip the switch, where we can go from obligation and burden to honor and privilege. 

Gratitude triggers are everywhere. 

Getting triggered is a fairly common expression these days but it usually connotes a negative bias.

When we speak of being "triggered" we are usually referring to something said or experienced that reminds us of a past negative experience and our actions in the present are now a reaction to that past experience.

But what if we set ourselves up to be triggered into gratitude?

It's easier than you might think. The triggers are all over the place, if we're willing to look.

Surely holding your newborn child is a moment most of us would agree triggers gratitude. That one moment, to witness and participate in strikes most people as having witnessed a miracle – in fact, the whole thing is often packaged and spoken of as the “miracle of childbirth”.  

Hard to argue against this idea.  

Standing in the hospital, watching my wife experience pain I will never (thankfully) experience, in a final push (and a scream) pops out this tiny, perfect, person, I was clear I had witnessed a miracle.  

One egg, one sperm, met roughly nine months prior. They divided and divided and divided, with each cell containing the potential to become any body part and yet each one somehow knows how to develop into toes and hair and lungs and blood, the whole thing somehow dividing and growing and that turned into a fully perfectly formed baby girl (and then three years later another baby boy) – well shit – that was/is a miracle. 

Who’s arguing against this?  

At the same time, is there anything so common? Could anything be more ordinary? Is there anything that you and I (and literally every single other human) have more in common than being born? It is the very definition of ordinary. It could not possibly be more ordinary.  

Being born is, undoubtedly, the most common and most miraculous thing we can ever experience. 

Einstein said it best: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” 

Well, then, isn’t it just up to us how we look at it?  I mean is it a miracle? Yep! Is it ordinary? It couldn’t be more so. 

Let’s start with coffee. 

Nothing like a cup of joe to start the day. It’s certainly one of the things I look forward to. 

Simple and pure, it’s one of my favorite rituals.   

Many of us start the day in this place – it’s common. Ordinary even. 

And yet, what a miracle!  

Some Yemeni goat herder in the 15th century notices his goats are acting differently after eating certain beans and hundreds of years later I open my cabinet, grind some of these magic beans, and I’m happier?  

Someone invented the trucks that deliver it to the store. Someone built the roads. Someone stocked it. Every single step over these five centuries had to happen to bring that cup to my lips on this morning.  

The generations of parents, grandparents, great great great great great grandparents all had to line up perfectly for this cup in front of me to happen?  

That is a fucking miracle, dude. 

It is all a miracle. 

Maybe it is “just” semantics, dude. 

What if we changed how we heard “it’s just semantics”?  

What If the triviality imparted onto semantics by “just” in this sentence isn’t the only possible way to hear that sentence? Instead, what if it is meant to point out how simple it is to shift the quality of our life because semantics are malleable? 

Miracle or ordinary? It’s just semantics. You get to choose. 

Got to or get to? Same. Just semantics. You get to choose. 

One gives you one quality of life, and the other gives you a different quality.  







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