by Becky De Oliveira—
“I don’t understand what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I want to do, but instead do what I hate” (Romans 7:15, ISV).
The word literally almost always means figuratively—based on the way it is actually used in the majority of everyday conversation. “I literally died.” “My head literally exploded.” It is pretty much guaranteed that anything the speaker claims “literally” happened or will happen did not or will not. Ever. You didn’t literally starve when you were stuck without snacks and your flight was delayed at the airport. You are not going to literally rip anyone’s head off if you have to wait one minute longer in this slow-moving post office line. It’s nice—if a bit obvious—that those who help us define what we mean when we use language (in this case, dictionaries) have officially acknowledged what everyone has known for a long time: Literally almost never literally means literally. It is probably enormously helpful—and something of a relief, I suspect—for those learning English as a second language to discover, upon anxiously scouring the dictionary, that no one will be literally eating a horse. The jury is still out on whether or not anyone ever literally “freaks out,” because it is very difficult to define precisely what behaviors or states of mind constitute a freak out. Most people who claim to be literally freaking out are laughing and smiling in a good-humored manner. But who knows what might be roiling beneath the surface?
I would like to see the same acknowledgement of redefined meaning based on actual usage extended to the word try and most of its variations, most specifically the phrase “I’ll try,” which almost always means “I will not try.” If you ask a friend if he or she is coming to your birthday party this Saturday night and he or she responds, “Yeah, I’ll definitely try to be there,” this means (literally): “Five minutes from now I will have forgotten we even had this conversation. No, I’m not coming to your party. And you can forget about a card too.” And there is an inverse correlation between how hard people say they are going to try and how hard they will actually try. You’re more likely to get a no-show from someone indicating that they will try their “hardest” or, worse, the guy who will “try everything in my power.” The harder people insist that they are going to try to do something, the less hard they actually seem to try. The superlatives are probably thrown in unconsciously as a way of assuaging a guilty conscience. When we say we’ll try, what we really mean is that we would like to try. Or even that we would like to be the kind of people who would like to try. It’s more an expression of an attitude or of a vague sort of good will than an expression of actual intent to follow through on a course of action.
So, what does all this mean in the life of faith, a life in which perhaps all we can do is try? My friend Nathan Brown published a book a few years ago called Why I Try to Believe. I wrote a review of it in which I made the following observation:
The cry of the man in the Gospel of Mark, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ (9:24) is one to which we can all relate. Sometimes a commitment to trying is the best we can muster—in our relationships, our work, our faith. Circumstances cause the ground to shift beneath our feet. Most of us will hit spiritual lows, or experience setbacks and tragedies that make us wonder what life is all about—and if our faith in God is pure foolishness. What we choose to do at that point—and Brown makes it very clear faith is an active choice— marks a clear fork in the road.
We often do have good intentions that we forget about or lose sight of along the way. I, for example, try to say only positive things about other people—to their faces, behind their backs. This is my intention. But then I’ll have a bad day and feel weak, frustrated, and annoyed, and before I know it, I’ve griped about someone for no good reason at all. To make myself feel better? To make myself look better? I have no idea. This is where the earnest definition of “try” should be put into practice. I will try to do better. I will remind myself that perhaps the positive words I put out into the world will harness the winds, clear the clouds—if only for a moment, an hour, a day. That trying is not futile and neither should it be taken lightly. It is the work of a lifetime and the most important work there is.
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.