Stigma is a word that comes to us directly from its greek origin, originally meaning ‘a mark made by a pointed instrument.’ In a more modern definition that “mark” is a label or diagnosis that defines the person and is inherently negative or shameful. In botany, stigma denotes the part of a flower that accepts the pollen. I want to take this image and offer that we can use stigma more true to this definition, as the part of the organism that can accept the pollen or inspiration.
Through reducing the negative, shameful and dishonoring messages so commonly spread via stigma, we can offer instead more viable pollination which hopefully will mature into fruits of dignity.
The question is how?
Lewis Caroll in his seminal work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland beautifully illustrated the value and weight of word choice.
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied;
‘at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter.
‘You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!’
Take a moment and think — Do you say what you mean? Do you mean what you say?
As the Mad Hatter alluded, it is important to say what we mean and mean what we say. In my work with aging, I find word choice hugely influential, not only in communication, but in shaping my perspective. I am not going to give you a list of new words to use to reduce stigma, that is only a part of the power of words. More powerful is the intentionality and meaning behind the word.
All of us have witnessed a ‘new’ word be put into effect, only for it to take on the same shameful stigmatizing definition as its predecessor. I challenge you today to bring awareness to your word choice.
Really evaluate what you are saying. Do you mean what you say? Do you say what you mean?
Collect a vocabulary from your own imagination, experience, as well as picking up skillful language use from others. This will be clunky at first, and you will notice yourself not meaning what you say or saying what you mean. Being aware of these slip-ups is what is important. Enlist a compatriot to help, and engage in dialogue about which words feel best to each of you.
I often work with elders. I do not use words like elderly or old people, because those words do not mean what I am trying to say. To me elder denotes one who is wise, a teacher, one who has had more birthdays than most, and these are the people I spend my days with. Most of the elders I am in relationship with experience forgetfulness. Here are two more key word choices. First experience — using experience feels right for me. Experience means that in a moment in time something is happening. It has not always been the case and it will not always be the case. All I can know is what is true now and experience shows that. I oscillate between forgetfulness, dementia, cognitive change and neurocognitive disorder etc. depending on what I am communicating. We are all forgetful at times so this language does not pathologize. It also allows room for a variety of experiences that are not diagnosable.
These changes make my language more congruent with my experience and shift my perspective to be more in line with my inner wisdom.
I invite you to begin to watch words, to mean what you say and say what you mean.