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the real meaning of words...

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I'm back from Seattle.

It was such an interesting experience. A large portion of my time was spent parsing out the differences between words. 

Because humans are designed the way we are, semantics can mean the difference between flow and tightening (which affects the use of our body, our presence, and the quality of anything we are doing). The thoughts we think influence how we carry out our intentions. What's tricky is that it's not just how we speak to ourselves that matters, it's also how we speak to one another. 

It's a fascinating process, this hyper attention to detail and accuracy. 

Still in this awareness when I arrived home, I spent a bit of time catching up on the responses to last week’s social media and blog posts.

I noticed that a few times the proverbial expression "imitation is the greatest form of flattery" came up. It struck me as an inappropriate response, one of those generalized things we say to justify particular behavior, so I decided to do a little research on the origin of the phrase.

Here's what I found out:

Marcus Aurelius:
You should consider that Imitation is the most acceptable part of Worship, and that the Gods had much rather Mankind should Resemble, than Flatter them.
Eustace Budgell, in Spectator Magazine: 
Imitation is a kind of artless flattery.
Caleb Colton in his book, Many Things in a Few Words: addressed to those who think: 
Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.

Then of course, there is Oscar Wilde's version:

Oscar Wilde: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.

Often that last bit is left off, which torques the meaning... Those partial to Wilde's version, might note that he also said:

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.

Once I dug beyond colloquial usage, I found that a source that suggested the original context of both Budgell and Colton's statements reference only those that copy others' work and are unaware they are copying. Innocence is implied.

That completely changes the sense of the phrase. 

The origin of the word flattery is "giving a pleasing but false impression to."

Apparently, this has been an issue for a very long time. Not just for artists, but for anyone that publicly shares original thought. 

Why is it so difficult to be authentic? Is there fear in the sound of our own voice? Fear of failure? What is it that forms the lie? What is it that causes us to contract rather than to expand? 

There is a book called The Talent Code, in which Daniel Coyle combines neurological research with the question - what sets amazing performers and athletes apart from others. He comes to the conclusion that talent is not something you're born with. Talent requires deep practice and failure.

It was one of those books that changed me. I learned something about how I'm designed as a human being and that sometimes the things we collectively say in our culture run contrary to that wellness of that design.

It also revealed to me that cushioning ourselves or others from failure is not just futile, it slows growth and skill-building. It does the opposite of what we intend.

As for this whole imitation thing... it reminds me of the children’s story about the emperor wearing no clothes. If the ones that see the glaring lie in the room don’t say something out loud, if we instead, avert our gaze, what kind of society are we collectively promoting?  

always in motion,


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  • Stones remind us of our life stories
    The ones that we collect that is.
    The smallest may say it was an adventure
    too difficult to describe, too hard to say why.

    The large ones speak loudly
    proclaiming their presence
    Yes, we see you; we hear you
    It was an intoxicating love affair!

    Stones tell a lot about a person
    the highs, the lows, the travels.
    I keep mine confined to a homemade
    heartfelt dish made by a child.

    patricia Kuessner on
  • Great quotation from Marcus Aurelius. A typo on the date, though, I guess—he was born in 121 AD.

    Nath Rockhill on
  • Thanks for sharing your dive into word/phrase derivation..i thought i was the only one :>) And thank you for the mention of Daniel Coyle’s book. A book that has been a wonder filled reminder of a deep interest is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.

    Nancy Lubin on

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