I’ve had the (un)fortunate opportunity to learn about many somewhat-outdated cognitive models over the past two months of my education in Cognitive Science, one of them being Conceptual Metaphor Theory. I will spare you the gory details of the theory itself, partly because I didn’t torture myself into reading about all the gory details. Google it if you’re interested (or read Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) . The gist of it is this: our everyday language is embedded with “conceptual metaphors” that link an often abstract concept to a sensorimotor experience or a spatial concept. For example, “my future is on the rise” (not sure if I just made that up. doesn’t sound very right) has no literal meaning, but we understand “up” to mean “good”, so “on the rise” implies “getting better”. Another good one is “I love you more”. The concept of “more is good” is so ingrained in our everyday speech that we somehow acquired the ability to measure “love” while bypassing defining what love actually is. There is an infinite number of these, and while I still think any model of cognition or “concepts” that doesn’t mention brain or neurons is stupid, it’s quite fun as a game - see how many conceptual metaphors you can spot. So, on my rampage to catch myself from using conceptual metaphors, I noticed a very interesting word that we use everyday, and the reason I’m writing about this today has nothing to do with cognition, but more so with improving your mental health.
One of these is not like the rest: the car is fast, the tree is green, he is tall, the squirrels are fat, I am sad.
Did you spot it?
What I realized is that the word “is” (are/am/be) has two very distinctive meanings. The first, as in the first 4 examples, means the presence of a state or attribute, that we’re describing something as we perceive it. But what’s so different about the last example? Yes, it is about “me”, and that’s where this strange usage difference often occurs: “is” is often used to imply agency, as in something has the ability to do something, and is currently doing that thing. This second meaning is used when we perceive something as having a mind, so we theorize about their intention for something, or in our own case, stating our intention. So, although not strictly accurate, we can simplify these two description to “passive being” and “active being”, in order to avoid me further confusing you. In other words, when we say “is”, sometimes we mean “is”, but sometimes we mean “is being.” It is obviously affected by the word that comes after “is”, i.e. whether that word necessitates having a subject or object. Verbs are usually pretty easy to tell, but adjectives are a lot more ambiguous. For example, “he is upset” can go both ways: he is upset as a state of being, or he is actively being upset at something, and that’s the point I wanted to raise today.
You must be thinking to yourselves at this point, “is he f-ing serious?” The answer is yes, meaning I am being serious, not that I am a serious person. Aside from our remarkable ability to distinguish between these situations on the fly, we often misuse the two meanings with intention. For example, “my microwave is crazy” implies an agent that’s plotting to overheat all your food, because the word crazy doesn’t make sense if it’s used with a passive, non-agent. We might know it in the literary world as personification, but I feel like it’s a bit more important than any old literary device. But while that is very interesting, the point of this article is to emphasize what we often do conversely, that is, using passive “is” to describe an agent, and often detrimentally, ourselves.
I really feel like I’m getting nowhere after 3 paragraphs trying to build a coherent lead-up, so I’ll just lay it out: we have a choice to be happy or sad, but we often feel passive through our emotions and sometimes helpless, because, as I argue, we are confusing the word “is” between its two usages. Because we use “is” to describe the existence of a property so much, sometimes we mistakenly think something is an attribute just because we use “is” to describe it. As an agent with what I perceive to be choice, every time I am sad, it’s because I am being sad, not because sadness is an attribute of me. But the way we use “is” to say “the cup is blue” is spilling over into the way we describe ourselves. So does that mean agency implies that it has a choice over all matters, and that we should say “I am being __” instead of “I am __” in all circumstances? No. I am 5ft11, I am not being 5ft11. I guess the point is this: unlike your height, you have some choice over your emotions and state of mind, and that is a good thing. Being happy is not as passive as waiting for something to make you happy, it’s as simple as be being happy.
I’m not saying I’ve found the cure to all emotional ailments like depression, no way José. And it is still very likely that none of us are active agents, and my consciousness is just a by-product of my biophysically constrained meat shell, so “is” actually only means passively having an attribute. But what I AM saying is simply this (conditioned on your belief of your own existence): instead of saying “I am sad”, sometimes it feels better to say “I am being sad”, as stupid as that might sound.