What is Philosophy?

statue-756624_640

Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay

The word Philosophy is rooted in the Latin word Philosophia—a portmanteau of the two Ancient Greek words: philos which means loving and sophia, which means wisdom. So, you can say that the literal and original translation of Philosophy is the “love and pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.”

Nowadays, however, the word has taken on a broader meaning. In everyday conversation, the word is often used to refer to a person’s values and ideologies. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to their belief systems as their philosophy/ies in life. And the usage would still be correct. However, for the purpose of this post, and most succeeding posts pertaining to this subject, we’ll be examining and using the definition of the academic discipline called Philosophy.

Merriam Webster offers a broad definition of Philosophy as “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life.” While Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive definition with, “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” Now, whether you choose to go with the Merriam Webster definition or that of Wikipedia’s, you come away with a fundamental understanding that Philosophy is a thinking subject. One that requires effort, action, and deliberateness. It is a subject that seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology). It’s also an incredible history lesson because it gives you a glimpse of the prevalent ideologies and belief systems of various civilizations throughout the ages.

If the definition seems expansive, that’s because it is. After all, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Philosophy is regarded as the mother of all sciences. Through the constant thinking, imagining, and overthinking of various philosophers throughout history, humankind has come away with a thirst for discovery and knowledge. If curiosity killed the cat, the philosophers’ curiosity birthed modern science, critical reasoning, logic, and many of the plotlines of today’s best works of art, film, and literature.

Trivia Time: Plato’s belief that everything in the universe is patterned after “invisible geometrical shapes” (Platonic solids) helped start the study of Modern Chemistry. His telling of the story of “The Ring of Gyges” in The Republic is also the inspiration behind Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” As for Aristotle, he happens to be the father of the species-genus classification that we use in Science today! He also believed the world was round long before Copernicus was even born. He came away with this conclusion after studying the lunar eclipse and the shadows created by the Earth against the Moon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, you see, Philosophy has taught us a great many things throughout history—and it continues to offer us a plethora of learnings today. By offering us multiple perspectives on life, meaning, reality, et al., it helps expand our mindset. It teaches us to become more logical, introspective, openminded, and consequently, empathic. And since creativity means venturing past reality into the realm of possibility, there’s a great chance philosophy can also help widen and deepen our thinking process, i.e. make us more creative. All good things in my book.

 

Recommended Read: The website Philosophy Basics offers an excellent collection of the many definitions of Philosophy that you’ll find online and in various dictionaries.

Related Articles:

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

Featured Poem: Invictus by William Ernest Henley

hand-749676_640

Image by: Johnny Lindner from Pixabay

Invictus
By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
my head is bloody but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged the punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

 

Never underestimate the transformative power of a well-crafted poem. Some poems are cathartic. They have the power to move their readers to tears or to laughter, melancholia or euphoria.  Others offer sensible life advice under the guise of metaphors and sweeping or epic imageries. They offer life lessons without getting too direct or didactic. But rarest and most precious of all, are the poems that inspire dramatic and lasting perspective and change. These are the poems that change lives and bolster the human spirit.

William Ernest Henley’s eminently popular work Invictus is the embodiment of life-changing poetry. It is a poem that has inspired some of the greatest minds in history. In his September 1941 speech at the House of Commons, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of the imminent threat of World War II. During the speech, he affirmed the strength and resilience of his constituents, paraphrasing the final two lines of Invictus with the famous statement, “We are still masters of our fate. We are still captains of our souls.”

And, of course, there’s also the unforgettable anecdote about the late, great South African leader Nelson Mandela. During his long imprisonment in Robben Island, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to his fellow prisoners to help raise their flagging spirits. Mandela, himself, had pulled great strength from the rousing words of W.E. Henley.

Invictus, with its timeless and universal theme of resilience and indomitability in the face of hardship and near-certain defeat, has deeply resonated with many of the world’s most memorable leaders. And it continues to inspire its readers today. Its acknowledgment of human suffering and assertion of humanity’s inner strength makes Invictus one of the most powerful and inspirational poems to have ever been written.

The birth of Invictus 

Before we get to the meat of the analysis, here’s a background on the poem’s title and its writer, William Ernest Henley.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Invictus is a Latin adjective used to describe something or someone that is “unconquerable, unsubdued, or invincible.” The word combines the prefix in, meaning not, and victus, from the word vincere, meaning “to conquer or overcome.” Looking at W.E. Henley’s life, it becomes apparent that the poem Invictus arose from the poet’s own experiences.

See, William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) knew a thing or two about suffering and fighting for survival. When he was just twelve years old, the poet was diagnosed with Bone Tuberculosis, a rare form of the disease that affected the skeletal system. Abscesses would form around lesions on bones, and draining these growths meant undergoing an excruciatingly painful process that Henley had to endure for many years.

By the late 1860s, the TB had progressed to the point where his left leg had to be amputated. And the disease would’ve taken his right one too, had Henley not contested the procedure. In a bid to save his right leg, he enlisted the help of the esteemed 19th-century surgeon, Joseph Lister. The treatment plan was successful, but the road to Henley’s recovery remained long and painful. W.E. Henley was confined in a hospital from 1873-1875. During this period, he wrote numerous poems about his ordeal—many of which were published in a book aptly called In Hospital.

Invictus, written in 1875, was supposed to be a part of the poetry collection, but for some reason, the 16-line masterpiece didn’t quite make the cut. The poem was eventually published in 1888 as a part of Henley’s Book of Verses.

Structure and Tone

Note: Now, there’s no mention of the sex of the speaker, but for the purpose of this analysis, I’m going to base it on Henley and just go with he/him.

Have you ever noticed how some poems just read beautifully? There’s a simplicity and balance to their structure, a smooth, almost predictable flow of rhymes and internal rhythms that translate well in readings. For me, Invictus isn’t just one of the most motivational poems in history, it’s also one of the best-sounding ones. Case in point, here’s a link to an audio recording of Morgan Freeman reading Invictus.

Aside from its wonderful message of human integrity and resolve, a part of what makes Invictus such a gorgeous piece is how tight and well-crafted the poem is. Its structure seems simple enough. Invictus is basically a four-stanza poem composed of quatrains (four lines per stanza). Each stanza follows an ABAB rhyme scheme, or an ABAB (me, pole, be, soul), CDCD (circumstance, aloud, chance, bowed), EFEF (tears, shade, years, afraid), GHGH (gate, scroll, fate, soul) scheme if we were to be more specific. This rhyme scheme creates natural pause points for the reader.

But, for me, what really makes the poem such an aural treat is its use of iambic tetrameter, almost like a metronome, to give the words a rhythmic da-dum-da-dum-da-dum sound. Try reading the poem out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

As for the tone of the work, we see a curious mix of both gravitas and optimism in each stanza. The first line of each stanza is a telling of despair, an acknowledgment of pain and suffering. While the latter lines are usually affirmations of the persona’s inner strength, determination, and courage. This is a pattern that continues throughout the work. It’s as if the persona is telling us that despite everything that’s happening, he is ready to face each challenge with courage and resilience.

Notice also how the work is written in first person and present tense. Aside from breathing life into each line, this technique also makes it easier for the readers to put themselves into the persona’s shoes. And with themes as universal as bravery, dignity, invincibility, and rising above adversity, it’s a poem that most of mankind can identify with.

Further analysis of Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole…

The first two lines of the poem establish the bleak situation or mood that the persona finds himself in. He speaks of night, a darkness that is so hellish (the pit) that it blankets everything in sight. Now, based on this description, we can infer that the speaker is using this darkness/night as a metaphor for feelings of helplessness, desolation, hopelessness, or even depression. But instead of dwelling or surrendering to these feelings, he opts to look at things in a different light. He goes:

I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

The word thank brings to mind both choice and action. The persona is actively choosing to feel gratitude and hope despite being mired in a dire situation. But notice the curious way he expresses his gratitude. He expresses thanks to whatever gods may be—a statement that seems to indicate the possibility of a higher power or a number of higher powers, but not the certainty. In short, it’s a line that hints at the speaker’s possible agnosticism. And if we look at the quality that he’s thankful for, his unconquerable soul, the last two lines can also be interpreted as more of a declaration of the persona’s indomitability rather than a mere articulation of thanks.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

This pattern of recounting the negative aspects of life followed by an assertion of the persona’s unbroken spirit continues in the second stanza. Here we see the persona speak of the cruel nature of existence—the fell clutch of circumstance and the bludgeonings of chance—as terrible events that occur outside of his control. The use of the word bludgeoning, brings to mind the idea of feeling beaten down by life. And yet, while such events may be unavoidable, what he can and does control is how he reacts to them.

He tells us, I have not winced nor cried aloud… My head is bloody, but unbowed. He may not have escaped such tragedies unscathed, but he refuses to be bogged down by these experiences. This stanza actually reminds me of something I read on W.E. Henley’s Wikipedia page. According to his brother, every time Henley had to undergo the draining of the abscesses in his joints—a very painful procedure, to be sure—Henley would try to mask the pain he was feeling. After each session, he would “Hop about the room, laughing loudly and playing with zest to pretend he was beyond the reach of pain.”

If anything, this anecdote shows us how personal the poem is to Henley. And when he speaks about a place of wrath and tears in the third stanza, one can imagine that the poet/persona is referring to both life and the hospital—a place that is often steeped with anguish, pain, and suffering.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

The second line in this stanza, Looms but the Horror of the shade, is also possibly a reference to facing one’s mortality. But again, these years of suffering or menace have not been enough to break the persona/poet. And just as sure as he has faced these trials with courage and defiance, he assures the reader that any challenges he will face in the future will be met with the same resoluteness. These challenges shall find him unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The poem then reaches its climax in the final stanza. Here, Henley borrows a concept from the New Testament of the King James Version of the Bible. The line It matters not how strait the gate appears to be a response to Matthew 7:13-14, which says:

Enter ye at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and there be few that find it.

This biblical passage tells us that to get to heaven, we need to walk the narrow path (the good path).  The next line, How charged with punishments the scroll, also appears to allude to the religious idea of our sins being weighed when we enter the afterlife. The tally on the scroll will determine where we go—heaven or hell.

And yet, what the persona in Invictus tells us is that these things don’t matter to him. He will not let such standards determine the course of his life. He will not bow to life’s hardships, nor would he be swayed by other people’s criteria. He says finally and definitively these iconic lines, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

IDOPhilosophy

Photo by Janeb13 (from Pixabay)

In a previous post called Writing Exercises: A Book that Changed My Life, I talked about how Sophie’s World started my love for Philosophy. Now, let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject matter. In fact, when we were studying the subject in college, I was a rather mediocre student. As was the case with Math and Physics, my love affair with Philosophy was very one-sided. But it’s a love of mine that’s endured the years, and one that I’m keen on nurturing and strengthening—occasionally through short courses but mostly through reading and listening to lectures and podcasts.

Now, over the years, I’ve noticed that Philosophy has a bit of a reputation problem. As a conversation topic, unless you’re surrounded by other enthusiasts, it’s bound to be a pretty quick stopper. People may nod or hmm politely, but it’s not very likely that you’d get any follow-up questions. Some people may even find the very word itself to be a bit of an internal ugh or eyeroll trigger. According to some friends, it’s just because philosophy is one of those things that are hard to get into. Some people find the subject inaccessible, boring, or even useless. Others have confessed to just finding people who talk about it really smug and annoying. And yes, the word pretentious did come up frequently and forcefully.

And honestly, I get it. I really do. People like what they like and are entitled to their opinions. I also see how philosophy isn’t exactly the most relatable or accessible, outwardly practical or interesting subject out there. In fact, a lot of philosophical texts are loaded with highfalutin words and stubbornly abstract concepts. I also get that some philosophy fans do come across as pretentious, arrogant, argumentative, and snooty know-it-alls. And hey, maybe some of them really are all those things and more. But what I’m really more interested in and concerned with are the harsh generalizations about the subject and its students that I’ve heard about or seen, (mostly online).

I think a lot of these misconceptions and generalizations stem from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what it’s used for. But before we get into the definition of philosophy and an enumeration of its uses, (things I’ll tackle in a separate post), I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on some of the criticisms levied against philosophy and its students.  Just my two cents, really.

  1. Not everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or intellectually arrogant. To say that everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or an intellectual snob is a pretty heavy generalization. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m sure there are some philosophy students who think they are smarter than the average joe or jane, but that’s not an always and everybody case. In fact, some of the most low-key, quiet, and humble people I’ve met happen to be philosophy professors or graduates. Pretentiousness and intellectual snobbery occur in every possible realm of study where conflicting opinions could arise—which is basically everywhere and regarding everything these days. I believe that being pretentious or having a superiority complex is more of a personality thing than a byproduct of studying or loving a specific subject.

 

  1. Philosophy is only as boring as every other subject you can think of. The word boring is incredibly subjective. What’s boring to one person is another person’s passion. Philosophy isn’t and doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.

 

  1. Many philosophy books feel inaccessible with their highfalutin words and hard-to-understand concepts. But there’s a solution to that problem. I don’t know about other philosophy fans, but I find original texts (translated into English) hard to grasp at times. To make it easier to study a particular branch of philosophy, I usually take short online courses, read Introduction to Philosophy books, and listen to various lectures just to get a better grasp of what a particular philosopher is teaching. I also think that some texts are designed to be hard reads with circuitous verse or logic, (Plato, anyone?), because the writer wants you to really pause and digest what you’re reading. It’s healthy brain exercise.

 

  1. Yes, some philosophers and their students may seem bullheaded or argumentative at times, but the end goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to be proven right. A philosopher’s quest is always to get to the truth of a particular belief or statement. This is where the Socratic Method comes in. As you can tell from its name, the Socratic Method refers to the teaching technique used by Socrates. Unlike most of today’s instructors, Socrates didn’t teach via key points and definitions. Instead, he taught by asking a lot, and I mean a lot of questions. It was his way of seeking truth. Naturally, this method annoyed a lot of powerful people during Socrates’ time, which eventually and unfortunately earned the philosopher his death sentence. Philosophers are truth-seekers, and sometimes this means pitting their beliefs against the beliefs of others as a way to check the strength and verity of their assumptions. Sincere philosophers will welcome being proven wrong if it means bringing them closer to the truth.

 

  1. We are all philosophers, sort of. Okay, so maybe very few of us have published books or articles on philosophy, and even fewer have earned MAs and PHDs in the field. But if you closely examine the foundations of many of our beliefs and principles, a lot of them are rooted, (at least partially), in some ancient philosophical movement. For example, in his book How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci points out the similarities between an Epictetus quote (Stoicism) and The Serenity Prayer. The Epictetus quote partially reads, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Now, consider the start of The Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” See the similarities? This belief that we ought to recognize and focus our efforts on the areas that we can control is also one that transcends religion. It’s a nugget of wisdom that secularists also try to practice.

 

  1. Philosophy has a lot of practical everyday uses. Though it may not be as obviously practical as studying medicine or law, or any other empirical subject out here, Philosophy is NOT a useless endeavor. In fact, here’s a bit of trivia: Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. Modern science, as we know it, along with the study of logic (mathematics) and even language arose partially from the efforts of the ancient philosophers. So, that alone shows the importance of the subject. But what about its everyday uses? Well, from experience, studying the different branches of philosophy has made me more openminded and emphatic. I find that the more I study philosophy, the less inclined I am to make snap judgments about things and people. The discipline has also improved my critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills by pushing me to think logically and outside the box. And lastly and most importantly, it has inspired me to always try to do good by others. All fine things in my book.

Ten Common Grammatical Mistakes Writers Make

10CommonGrammar

When it comes to writing, whether you’re penning a blog post, an essay, a poem, or a novel, having sound grammar is a must. No matter how golden your plot or message may be, if your work is littered with grammatical errors, then you run the very real risk of losing your readers before they even get to the good parts.

Now, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about writing is that there’s no skipping the fundamentals. You’ll need a fairly good grasp of grammar to secure a writing gig. And if you’re thinking of getting your novel published, then it’s safe to say that you’ll need more than just a good grasp. Think rock-solid, strongman-level clench.

Another (hard) lesson I’ve learned is that no matter how good of a writer you think you are, there’s always going to be room for improvement. Grammar, for all its rigidity, is actually quite the slippery sucker. It definitely helps to brush up on your grammar once in a while. That’s exactly what I was up to when I came across the following words/phrases. Think of this little list as a cheat sheet of sorts—that’s certainly how I’m treating it.

So, without further ado, here are ten of the most common grammatical mistakes even seasoned writers make.

1. Using i.e. and e.g. interchangeably.

 When I was in school, i.e. and e.g. were exclusively used for formal papers. Nowadays, however, more and more people are using i.e. and e.g. casually and interchangeably, usually when introducing further examples of what they were referring to. Now, like their ever-trusty cousin etc. (et cetera), i.e. and e.g. are Latin abbreviations. They actually mean very different things. The key to using them properly lies in knowing their respective definitions.

Let’s start with e.g., which is short for exempli gratia. Bit of a mouthful, but the first word gives you an idea of what it stands for. Exempli is pretty close to example, isn’t it? That’s because the phrase exempli gratia means “for example.” So, if you’ve been using e.g. when citing examples, then good job! You’ve hit the nail on its head.

As for i.e., it means id est, which translates to “that is.” So, if you’re referring to something specific to clarify or solidify your statement, i.e. is the way to go. Now, some people use the formula “i.e. = in essence,” which is a pretty neat trick too. Just don’t forget the Latin phrase in case the internet police come after you.

Some examples:

I’m thinking of binge-watching some shows this week, (e.g. Mad Men, Mindhunter, The Good Place, Brooklyn 99, Grace and Frankie), and then tweeting nonstop about how much work I still have to do. That’s the plan.

I’m busy doing creative research (i.e. binge-watching Mad Men).

2. Free reign vs. free rein

 Homophones are very tricky, especially when we’re talking idioms and common phrases. This one is particularly thorny, I think, because in a way both statements seem to make sense. Free reign vs. free rein. The first one conjures images of being a ruling monarch given absolute power to do as one chooses. The latter brings to mind how one can gently loosen the reins when horseback riding to allow the horse more freedom of movement.

These days, both phrases are used in magazine articles and news websites. But according to Merriam-Webster, the correct phrase is free rein. It means to be given “unrestricted liberty of action or decision.” The phrase was originally a term used in horseback-riding to refer to a way of holding the horse’s reins/straps. Sometime in the 17th century, however, free rein founds its figurative footing and has since been used to refer to “freedom of expression or action.”

As for free reign, it is but an eggcorn—it sounds right and feels right but is ultimately wrong.

Example:

Some days it feels as if the people have given a monster free rein to run the country into ruin. –dystopian novels and dissatisfied constituents

3. With baited breath vs. with bated breath

Another homophone, but an easier fix this time. If you read the first phrase again, you’ll see that it doesn’t make much sense. To bait someone is to deliberately try to annoy someone or make him/her angry. You use bait to catch fish or whatever else you want to trap or hunt—I’m hoping not humans. A clickbait is when you get lured to a website or webpage—oftentimes through misrepresentation of content. So, essentially, it doesn’t make sense to use the phrase, with baited breath.

As for bated, it refers to a diminishment or a restraint of “force or intensity.” So, saying with bated breath is perfectly acceptable. The phrase means the act of holding your breath in anticipation, anxiety, fear, nervousness, or suspense.

Example:

He waited for her answer with bated breath, but she said nothing. Her face remained impassive as ever, even as she made a move to take the ring from his hand.

4. Of vs. Have (as in should of/have, would of/have, could of/have)

Now, you may think this one’s pretty basic, but it’s a mistake that a lot of people make. Though not exactly homophones, of and have, (specifically the contraction of the latter), are close enough in sound to confuse a number of people.

Of, of course, is a preposition used to refer to the relationship or connection of two items, things, or groups. That is to say that you use of when referring to something or someone that belongs to or hails from something, someone, or somewhere else. For example, you say that “This painting is truly the work of a genius.” Or you can say, “Hermione Granger is the brightest witch of her generation.”

Based on that definition, you can see that it doesn’t really make sense to pair of with should, would, or could, especially if your intent is to convey regret or the possibility of something. As you’ll see in the following examples, the right expressions are: should have, would have, and could have.

Incorrect: She should of known better.

Correct: She should have known better.

Incorrect: Had I known about this sooner, I would of acted differently.

Correct: Had I known about this sooner, I would have acted differently.

Incorrect: I could of sworn that was you!

Correct: I could have sworn that was you!

5. Emigrated vs. Immigrated/Emigrate vs. Immigrate

Ah, emigrated and immigrated—another set of words similar enough in pronunciation to cause serious confusion. Again, the key to using the right word here is through learning each word’s definition. See, emigrate means leaving your country to live somewhere else. While immigrate means come to another country to live there. Essentially, you’re emigrating from your homeland, and immigrating to or into another country.

For example:

Due to the rampant property- and business-grabbing of President X’s government, people were forced to emigrate from X-land in search of better opportunities.

They immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.

6. Peak vs. Pique vs. Peek

Sneak peek or sneak peak? Piqued my interest or peaked my interest? These are some of the questions I’ve seen online regarding these three words. Here’s what each word means:

Peak means the highest point of something. As in, to summit the peak of Mount Everest.

Pique, when used as a verb, can mean two things: to excite or to stimulate, (ex. piqued my curiosity), and to feel annoyance or irritation (His glib remark left me feeling piqued).

As for Peek, well, that’s when you use your peepers to look at something, (ex. She took a furtive peek at the exam’s answer sheet.)

Now, as you can see from those definitions, if you’re talking about the opportunity to see something before its official release, (ex. movie trailers, book snippets), then you’re getting a sneak peek. If you’re after the word that describes either the metaphorical or physical pinnacle of something, then the word is peak. For example, Based on last night’s game, Dejounte Murray is back in peak condition. And lastly, if you’re referring to excitement, resentment, or curiosity being stirred, then piqued is the way to go. For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent round of interviews has piqued my interest in his new book, “Talking to Strangers.”

7. Compliment vs. Complement

Some time ago, I stayed in a hotel that offered an array of very nice freebies. While the items were very much appreciated, the misprint on the card that read “complementary,” threw me for a moment. I was pretty sure the proper word was complimentary, but I’m not ashamed to say that I did double-check with a dictionary app just to be sure.

Turns out, the right word is complimentary. See, while both of these words may be rooted in the Latin word, complere, which means “to complete,” time has allowed both words to develop their own meanings and usages. Let’s start with the one that comes closest to its Latin ancestor.

According to Merriam Webster, complement is “something that completes something else or makes it better.” While the adjective complementary means “goes together well.”

A compliment, on the other hand, refers to the expression of praise, admiration, or approval. As for complimentary, the adjective can mean either “expressing admiration” or “something that’s given for free.”

Here are some examples of how these words are used:

The gravelly quality of Johnny Cash’s voice, coupled with his emotional delivery of the lyrics, complemented the dark and painful message of the song Hurt.

The fact that Johnny Cash chose to cover the Nine Inch Nails song is a massive compliment to Trent Reznor’s writing and composing abilities.

While planning my wedding, I spent a lot of time looking for complementary colors that would fit our spring-literary theme.

The hotel offered the newlyweds a complimentary basket of fruits and a bottle of wine.

8. Between vs. Among

Though often used interchangeably, the difference between the two words is pretty straightforward. You use between when referring to specific or distinct items. And contrary to popular belief, these items need not be limited to two choices. While the word among is used when you’re pertaining to things or people in a collective and not distinct manner. (Or is it non-distinct?)

Examples:

When given a choice between coffee, orange juice, and tea, I always choose the first as my preferred breakfast drink.

Contrary to popular belief, there can be honor among thieves. (Though that honor is tenuous at best, if you ask me.)

9. Shoe-in vs. Shoo-in

Perhaps it’s the foot-in-the-door association that’s done it, but there seems to be a large number of people who use shoe-in when referring to a sure winner. The right expression when you’re talking about someone or something that’s certain to succeed is shoo-in. You know, as in when you urge something or someone forward, as in you shoo them forward.

Example:

With her aunt as one of the judges, she’s a shoo-in to win the pageant.

10. I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less

Now, unlike the previous entries where there’s a clear-cut right and wrong answer, this one has to do with what you want to say. Of course, the common expression is I couldn’t care less, as in I don’t care at all. Hence the contraction in couldn’t. But technically you can say I could care less, if that’s exactly what you mean. It all boils down to context.

Examples:

I couldn’t care less about who wins the next race. My team’s already out of the running, so it doesn’t matter who wins first place. (I don’t care.)

I could care less about the results of the upcoming elections, that’s true. But it’s not in my nature to be apathetic about something that affects my family’s day-to-day existence. (I care.)

These are just some of the trickier grammar problems I’ve personally encountered while writing, or seen online while doing research. I’m sure there are many more words and phrases that we can learn together. What about you? Any other words or idioms you’ve struggled with?

 

Featured Poem: The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

Fishing Boat

(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay )

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” Now, I am not prone to literary chills, but I do know a thing or two about feeling overwhelmed when one encounters truly wonderful art.

One poem, in particular, never fails to evoke a visceral reaction from me—and that’s The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve read this poem so many times, but with each reading, I still find myself inexplicably choked up and teary-eyed. The lines, “He didn’t fight./He hadn’t fought at all,” just gets to me every time.

It’s a beautiful poem rife with riveting imagery and layers of meaning. I can only hope that this analysis will do it some justice.

A Brief Background on Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is one of the most celebrated American poets in history. She began her long and illustrious career in 1946 at the publication of her first book of poems, North & South. The book, which won the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry, showcased Bishop’s exceptional writing style—a fine mixture of in-depth and eloquent prose coupled with guarded, almost detached storytelling.

At a time when confessional poetry was on the rise, Bishop stood out as a writer who could write about personal experience while maintaining a certain ‘distance’ from the work. Opting to draw the reader in through meticulous and vivid description, providing visuals so good you can picture and feel the moment, while also maintaining a level of neutrality and objectivity in the narrative. This is something we see clearly in one of her most well-known works, The Fish.

Style and Tone

Written in free verse and first-person, The Fish consists of seventy-six lines. While the poem itself is highly descriptive, each line is made deliberately brief, allowing the eye to linger and process the details of the poem and the intricacies of the fish’s anatomy. The narrator somehow fades into the background. Though it is her voice that we hear and her actions that set the scene—I caught/I thought/I looked/I admired/I saw/I stared/I let the fish go—there is undeniable impartiality to her tone.

We are left to infer how the persona feels about the fish and why she would let such a prize catch swim away. I believe this is intentional. By maintaining some level of distance, our narrator allows us to focus on the fish and to commiserate with its plight. We are given the opportunity to put ourselves in the fisherwoman’s shoes. To see through her eyes why this fish is different, why it deserves to live, without overtly directing us to the answer.

The occasional dash provides an even bigger pause point for the reader, conveying the natural cadence and interruptions of a person’s speech and thought, or rather, afterthought process. This, along with Bishop’s use of alliteration (backed, packed/breathing in, terrible oxygen/caught, fought), repetition (wallpaper, gills, rusted, and rainbow), and internal rhymes, creates a rhythmic and almost musical reading experience.

Further analysis of The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

The poem begins with a straightforward statement—I caught a tremendous fish. In a way, it almost sounds like a brag. It’s as if the persona is telling us with pride that this is a special fish, a prize catch. She goes through the motions of pulling the fish up to reel it into her boat. Then, the tone quickly shifts and slides into mild confusion. He didn’t fight./He hadn’t fought at all.

Now, the reader doesn’t need to be a seasoned fisherman/woman to understand that this isn’t normal behavior for caught fish. Normally, a fish would instinctively thrash and resist its being pulled out of water. But this fish was different. He simply hung a grunting weight, as if it were resigned to its fate. The lack of fight in the fish pushes the fisherwoman to closely inspect her catch.

She first notices its age. This fish was no youngling. She describes the fish as being battered, venerable, and homely, with brown skin like ancient wallpaper, speckled with barnacles and even infested with sea-lice. Notice the curious word she uses to describe the fish—venerable, which means esteemed and revered. Somehow, in her observations, the tone had shifted to awe. Even as she speaks of its frightening gills, its coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, its shiny entrails, and eyes that don’t look so much as simply tip into the light, the persona has already begun to identify with the fish. To see it, not as a catch, but as a living, breathing being, much like herself.

It is when the persona begins to admire the fish’s jaw—grim, weaponlike, but also aching—that Bishop heavily hints at the deciding factor for the fisherwoman—why she let the fish go. In painful detail, she describes the five old pieces of fish-line embedded firmly in the fish’s mouth. She likens them to medals or a five-haired beard of wisdom, thereby conjuring images of a weathered warrior or veteran. This was a fish who had fought time and again for its survival. The fact that it seemed to have finally given up now doesn’t make the realization less poignant. If anything, it heightens the relatability of this poor, battered creature. (For who among us haven’t felt bogged down and beaten by life at times?)

In that shining moment, the fish ceases to simply be somebody’s trophy or the catch of the day. The persona sees it for what it really is—a survivor. A creature that deserves her respect, admiration, and mercy. She identifies with the fish, for its story is a lot like that of mankind’s. A long and painful struggle to stay alive.

Bishop describes this moment of realization as something overwhelming. She writes about how spilt oil, a common occurrence in fishing boats, transforms into something spectacular—Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! The moment is so powerful that the persona finds herself unable to do anything but bow to this newfound awareness and simply let the fish go.

The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
And held him beside the boat
Half out of water with my hook
Fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
Battered and venerable
And homely. Here and there
His brown skin hung in strips
Like ancient wallpaper,
And its pattern of darker brown
Was like wallpaper:
Shapes like full-blown roses
Stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
Fine rosettes of lime,
And infested
With tiny white sea-lice,
And underneath two or three
Rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
The terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
Fresh and crisp with blood,
That can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
Packed in like feathers,
The big bones and the little bones,
The dramatic reds and blacks
Of his shiny entrails,
And the pink swim-bladder
Like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
Which were far larger than mine
But shallower, and yellowed,
The irises backed and packed
With tarnished tinfoil
Seen through the lenses
Of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
To return my stare.
–It was more the tipping
Of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
The mechanism of his jaw,
And then I saw
That from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip—
Grim, wet, and weaponlike,
Hung five old pieces of fish-line,
Or four and a wire leader
With the swivel still attached,
With all their five big hooks
Grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
Where he broke it two heavier lines,
And a fine black thread
Still crimped from the strain and snap
When it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
Frayed and wavering,
A five-haired beard of wisdom
Trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
And victory filled up
The little rented boat,
From the pool of bilge
Where oil had spread a rainbow
Around the rusted engine
To the bailer rusted orange,
The sun-cracked thwarts,
The oarlocks and the strings,
The gunnels—until everything
Was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

My 2010 Copy of Sophies WOrld
My tattered copy of Sophie’s World

Some books will make you smile for a moment, others will make you weep and ache for days—I’m looking at you, Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. But my favorites are the ones that stick with you forever, the ones that change the course of your life in one sitting. Now I’ve been fortunate enough to have read a number of life-changing books, and today, I’ll be featuring one of my earliest favorites—Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

It was one of my payday gifts to myself. The book had sat, fat, shiny, and bright blue on the cramped shelf, occupying more space than the other novels beside it. Price-wise, it was a bit more than what I’d pay for if I got another Penguin Classic. But I’m a sucker for hefty books in pretty packaging—one of my reading mottos being, “More pages = more bang for my buck.” So, with just a glance at the title and the author, Sophie’s World made its way home with me that night.

In case you haven’t read Sophie’s World, (a book I highly recommend but understand isn’t for everyone), here’s a bit of a warning: it reads more like a crash course on the history of philosophy than an actual work of fiction. Sure, the part that is fiction is very compelling and well-written, but the bulk of the book consists of philosophy lessons being fed via mail to the novel’s protagonist, 13-year-old Sophie Amundsen.

Now, this structure may be off-putting to other readers. And that’s fair. Most of the time, we pick up novels as a means to escape real life, not to be inundated by lengthy history and philosophy lessons. However, to me, Sophie’s World was the spark that started my lifelong love for Philosophy and Philosophy Books. Now, prior to this book, I have read and loved other think-reads from great authors like George Orwell, Milan Kundera, Alan Lightman, and Kurt Vonnegut. But Sophie’s World was the book that inspired me to really study philosophy. To read Plato, Sartre, and Kierkegaard (to name a few), to watch lectures, to take certificate courses in Coursera, and to listen to podcasts like The Partially Examined Life and Philosophy Bites.

By introducing me to philosophy, Sophie’s World has helped give direction to my life. It helped shape my life’s purpose, which is to keep learning, to constantly seek truth, and to always strive to do good. And for that, I am very grateful.

What about you? What’s one of your biggest literary game-changers?

Creating a Morning Routine for Night Owls

coffee-1390800_1280
from Pixabay. Image by Comfreak/Jonny Lindner

Hate getting up every morning? Me too.

For us night owls and slow starters, mornings bring a special kind of torture. As someone who has trouble falling asleep before 6 a.m., I know all about the struggle of pulling yourself out of bed right in the thick of sleep and dreaming. In fact, for a long time, I’ve found it difficult to get myself together and ready to start working until late in the afternoon.

Like other night owls, I hit the peak of my productivity, energy, and creativity around midnight. But the truth is that unless you’ve got full command of your schedule, are self-employed, or work the night shift, there’s just no workaround when it comes to daytime living. The fact is that we live in a world where banks, government agencies, and a large number of businesses still operate within the standard 8-5 or 9-6 schedule.

So, how exactly can a night owl adapt and thrive in a world that caters to morning people? Well, it all starts with establishing an effective morning routine. The following are the tips I’ve found most helpful in chipping away at my wake-up time. Now, you don’t have to do all the things in this list, but hopefully, you’ll find some of the items helpful on your journey to becoming an earlier, if not early, riser.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

According to an article by the National Sleep Foundation, experts recommend that adults get roughly 7-9 hours of sleep each day. Now, 7-9 hours of sleep every day can seem like a pretty tall order, especially if you’re juggling two jobs, have kids to take care of, or have an ever-expanding to-do list that you need to sift through. But the fact remains that prolonged sleep deprivation can have adverse effects on your mental and physical health. (You can read more about the effects of sleep deprivation on Science Daily.) So as much as possible, do try to go for at least seven hours of sleep each night.

Now, on the days where getting seven hours of sleep just isn’t possible—and there will be days like that—I recommend finding your personal sweet spot when it comes to minimum hours of sleep. You know, that number of hours wherein you may still feel a bit tired but can otherwise power through the day with little trouble.  The number varies from one person to another. I have friends who swear by sleeping 3-4 hours most days, my husband feels at his best with 6 hours of sleep, and as for me, it’s 5.5 hours or 8.

Finding that sweet spot will take some time, but you’ll know it when you hit it. I just don’t recommend relying on this trick too often.

Get ready to get up at the same time every day. And I mean every day.

This might just be the most crucial part of your morning routine. Now, we all know that the key to developing any habit is consistency. And since the goal here is to get up earlier, it’s important to note that the only way to successfully modify your sleep-wake cycle is through creating lasting change in your body’s circadian rhythm and, consequently, its biological clock.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has this really informative fact sheet on circadian rhythms that’s definitely worth a read. But in case you don’t have time to read the article, here are some key takeaways that you might find interesting. First, your circadian rhythm is what determines a lot of your body’s biological functions. We’re talking sleep-wake cycles, eating habits, hormone release, and even your moods. Disruptions to its natural rhythm have been linked to various health conditions like diabetes, obesity, insomnia, and even depression and bipolar disorder.

So, where does waking up early fit in this scenario? Well, here’s your second takeaway. As the article puts it, “Circadian rhythms help determine our sleep patterns.” It signals your body’s SCN or master clock to produce melatonin, a.k.a. the sleep hormone. This is a process that peaks at night. Hence most people feel wide awake during the daytime and then become increasingly groggy as the night progresses.

Because our bodies are predisposed to slip into sleep mode at night, theoretically, it should be easier to transition into nighttime sleeping rather than dozing off once the day breaks. Now, I recognize that this isn’t always the case. I, myself, have gone through periods wherein the only way to sleep through the night was with copious amounts of wine, a few sips of antihistamine, or a p.m. pill or two. But I’ve also found through experience that in the long run, nighttime sleeping is more restful than the lengthiest daytime snooze. Plus, long-term night shift work has been associated with a lot of health risks, including heart disease, ulcer, and even some types of cancer. This is why, unless you absolutely have to work at night, it pays to shift into daytime living.

Since changing your sleep pattern now will cause some ripples in your circadian rhythm, it’s important that you try to stabilize your body’s biological clock as soon as possible. This is where waking up at the same time every day comes in. By getting up at the same time every day for a few weeks, you’re employing the necessary change to your schedule while also giving your body the period it needs to settle into its new rhythm.

But what about the weekends? Well, this is the tricky part. See, getting up late should be fine once in a while, but sleeping in too often will definitely make it harder to turn this practice into habit. So, if you’re serious about making a change to your timetable, make it a point to get up at roughly the same time every day—whether we’re talking Manic Mondays or Slowdown Sundays.

Invest in the right alarm clock.

One of these days, you’re not going to need an alarm clock to get up in the morning. However, let’s be honest. If you’re reading this article, today is not going to be that day. Neither is tomorrow. So, go ahead and use your phone’s built-in alarm clock as your personal rooster for as long as you need to.

But if you’re a sleepyhead like me, chances are, you’ve found yourself immune to your phone’s alarm. That thing could ring, buzz, and ping for hours and you’d still be out cold ‘til noon. It’s a good thing that there are a lot of alarm clocks out there that are designed specifically for heavy sleepers. In this list from Health.com, there’s even one that will legit shred your money if you don’t get up on time. Now, that’s too hardcore for me and I’m too lazy to maintain another gizmo (other than my laptop and phone), so I prefer downloading apps. If you’re more of an app person like me, here’s a list of android and iPhone alarm clock apps from TechUntold.

I’ve tried about half of the apps on the list, but the one that has worked best for me is Alarmy—specifically the barcode option. I use the barcode of a book that I keep in another room, and the alarm just keeps going until I get up and scan that barcode. It’s equal parts maddening and effective.

To snooze or not to snooze?

It’s unanimous. All productivity experts agree that the key to getting up early is killing one’s snooze-hitting habits. But, honestly, I still haven’t gotten to that point where the first alarm is good enough. In case you’re in the same boat, one thing I recommend is to set alarms in three-minute intervals—and to also use your phone’s alarm. That way, it’s impossible to get back to sleep for the next 30 minutes or so.

Make your bed first thing in the morning.

According to this article from CNBC’s website, people who make their beds first thing in the morning tend to feel more productive and driven compared to their non-bedmaking counterparts. They also tend to be confident, adventurous, and sociable early risers. So, how can one simple habit boost a person’s sociability and productivity?

Well, productivity experts including retired U.S. Navy Admiral SEAL William H. McCraven, author of the bestselling book “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World,” believe that this is down to that sense of accomplishment that comes with ticking off the “first task of the day.” This simple chore takes but a few minutes of your time, keeps you from crawling back into bed, and helps fuel your productivity throughout the day. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

Find 20 minutes of ME time or Meditate.

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of the things that make mornings so distasteful to me is the harried feeling that comes with rushing from one task to the other. By the time I get dressed, I’m exhausted and up to my neck in stress that the only thing I want to do is crawl back into bed. But here’s the beauty of getting up earlier than you have to. You can make time to slow your morning down into something enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be a complete hour—though if you can squeeze that hour in without being late, then go for it!

At the risk of sounding hokey, sometimes all you need is a few minutes to sit down and take in the opportunities that come with the new day. Take a bit of time for yourself. Meditate if you can or just sit down with a notebook and map out how you want the rest of the day to look. Get your to-do list together. You may not tick off all the boxes on your list, but at the very least, your day will have purpose and direction.