Confucius, when asked if he could be given one power in ruling a country, said, “Give me the power to name things.”
This may seem to be a strange sense of priority — the power to name things after all seems weak compared to the power to control the military or the power to tax people or businesses.
But in fact, the power to name, or misname, things explains much of what is causing gridlock and confusion in our government and our culture. And the misnaming of things is pervasive, subversive, and unfortunately, easy to accept over time.
This hit home at a local store where I was confronted with an array of more than ten Advent calendar choices. I wanted to buy one. The problem was that not one of these “Advent” calendars had anything to do with Advent. Not one told the story of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus Christ.
An Advent calendar without the Advent story must surely be an anomaly. It turns out this isn’t the case.
Online, I found one major retailer alone with 40 Advent calendars on its very first page. Only three had anything to do with the Nativity. And across all of them, there seemed to be an unwillingness to call things as they are. Instead of a “Santa Advent Calendar,” for example, it was a “Christmas Old Hairy Man Advent Countdown Calendar.” What Affordable Care Act lawyer wrote this title, I wondered?
Although it was difficult to find Advent calendars that featured Advent, I did find “The Purrfect Harmony Advent Calendar,” The “Paw Patrol Advent Calendar,” “The Teenage Mutant Turtles Advent Calendar” and a “Nantucket Home Gingerbread House Fabric Christmas Countdown Advent Calendar.” Say that twice, quickly.
Clarity appeared with the “Barbie Advent Calendar” which gets right to the point: it features 24 days of Barbie clothes and accessories. Clearly “Advent” is about acquiring as many possessions as possible.
Somehow Advent has acquired a new meaning, in which there is nothing about the preparation for the birth of Jesus — the Savior of the world.
Nothing about the four weeks in which we can have readings that are themed: hope, preparation, joy and love. Nothing about Immanuel, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace. Nothing about Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Nothing in short, about Advent. Somehow, “Advent” has come to mean something else.
But this confusion of names is illustrative of why we can’t make progress in government, and why the country seems so divided. We don’t share the meaning of names.
If the government needs more “revenues” to fund its activities, why should we complain unless what “revenues” really means is “taxes”? If the “wall” means border security, why wouldn’t we fund it unless what the “wall” really means is a political opponent scoring a victory?
The power to name things is the power to influence, shape and control the way we see the world. An Advent calendar without Advent is just one example of how words can be disconnected from their true meaning. And unfortunately, misnaming important issues does not lead to “Peace on earth, good will to men.”
Michael Rybarski is the head of LifeChange Strategy Group and the co-author of “Start-Up Smarts: The Thinking Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Growing Your Business.”
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