So is a painting by Cézanne, an Ennio Morricone composition or the unfettered flatulence of someone close by who’s eaten a garlic naan
The other day, while speaking of a certain larger-than-lifeless politician, when a friend referred to him as powerful, something struck me. That this particular leader, while currently glued on (it would seem) to a seat of great power, and holding the straining leashes of instruments and agencies that wielded power, wasn’t what I’d call powerful at all.
My contention: how can a person who spends every waking moment trying to make sure he stays in power, and puts every resource at his disposal to achieve it, be called powerful?
Muhammad Ali’s right cross is an example of powerful, I offered. So is a painting by Cézanne, an Ennio Morricone composition or the unfettered flatulence of someone close by who’s eaten a garlic naan. They each burst forth spontaneously from fist, heart, soul or gut, to move you, albeit in different ways, despite yourself. Wasn’t desperately, fearfully, maniacally seeking and holding on to a position of power a compensation for feeling powerless rather than powerful, I said.
My friend called me an idiot and left. Pity, because she didn’t see me doffing (whatever that means) my imaginary hat to her. Because what she had done, in my opinion, was the best demonstration of powerful.
She hadn’t felt the desire to prove she was right. Or I wrong. She hadn’t felt the need to be diplomatic about how her opinion differed from mine. She hadn’t feared the consequences of her actions, meaning would I remain her friend after this free sharing of ideas. She didn’t worry that I’d call her anti-national later. She just left. No door-slamming, no anger. Seeking nothing other than wanting to lead her life on her terms, free of idiots like me, and be herself at all times. And she had done it on her own, with zero support or retweets from family, friends or followers. That, to me, says powerful like nothing else.
This made me think of words that sound like synonyms but are more opposites. Like escape and release, for instance.
When life creates an environment that’s hard to take, our primary response is to escape. And some of us manage to do it by cutting off, finding another town, another country, or via someone or something that appears to offer us a more palatable environment. But an escape inherently means that the ‘authorities’ you managed to give the slip to — the unresolved past, in this case — will continue ‘looking’ for you. And that is a discomfiting subconscious burden to bear.
Your past is like the Pinkerton men in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, forever a shimmery, rumbling presence in the background, gaining on you, the fugitive, the outlaw. It is good to remember how the film ends. They get their man/men. They always do. So also our old lives.
The only way one can ‘escape’ one’s old life is by not attempting to escape it at all, and working towards a release from it instead.
What’s the difference, you ask.
An escape is a short cut. It is done quickly. It is admitting to yourself that your old life is bigger and stronger than you, and that you can get past your past, so to speak, not by standing up to it and taking it on in a fair fight but by temporarily pulling the wool over its eyes.
A release, on the other hand, is earned. It takes work. A release is slow and hard and painful. Heck, a release may not be granted at all sometimes. But unlike an escape which rarely (if ever) works, a release is the only thing that can work. A release is the opposite of turning your back on your past. It is looking your circumstances in the eye and showing your old life that you are bigger and stronger than it is. It’s making it blink first, give up, and let you go because it can contain you no longer.
More so-called synonyms: stylish and trendy. How often we have used one instead of the other. And, if you think about it, how completely opposite they are. A trendy person is one who follows the flavour of the season in attire, lingo and overall demeanour.
She’s a follower. A stylish person, on the other hand, has no concern whatever for what’s in fashion. Trends don’t buffet her about. Far from it. She’s actually the opposite: a trendsetter.
How about loneliness? Pioneering social neuroscientist and intrepid researcher John Cacioppo says there’s no proper antonym in English for the word loneliness, nothing adequate at least.
Some think being among people, as many as you can gather, is the opposite of loneliness; that you can avoid it by hanging out at pubs, parties, family gatherings or going on group tours. Only to find that this just makes them lonelier. Little realising that there is one word that is the exact, precise opposite of loneliness, and people haven’t found it because it is more likely to appear in the synonym list: solitude.