Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Why Definitions Matter

Definitions are vital. No matter what you’re trying to convey, you need to know how others define what it is you’re talking about.

People often believe that it’s easy to know a definition and that once you do, everyone who understands that definition has the same one, but that’s not necessarily true. It is in some cases. For example, when we define the moon as the large planetoid object orbiting the earth, everyone understands that.

However, when we define something like love, we come to much shakier ground. What is love? Does it encompass both romantic and platonic love, as well as agapé love, or is it to be construed more narrowly? And when I think of romantic love, do you think of it the same way? What about neighbor? Does that mean only your immediate neighbor or someone who lives in the house next door to your neighbor?

Also, when the Bible says to love your neighbor does it mean only the persons on either side of you or does it mean more than that? And if it means more than that (which it surely does), then who all qualifies as a neighbor? Those of our faith? All humanity? All life on earth? Where does one draw the line?

Now, if we extrapolate out to every conversation, every attempt to communicate with others, we see that confusion is inevitable because my definition of everything is likely to be at least a little different than yours.

When a candidate says he wants to make health insurance better, what does that mean? Does that mean more affordable? Does it mean broader coverage for the same price? Does it mean a free market system or a single payer system? And who gets to define what is meant by better? Insurance companies? Doctors? Consumers?

Not only that, but consider that your answer is probably different than the answer your neighbor will provide. And your neighbor’s neighbor. The point is that definitions matter and that they’re never exactly the same between two people, let alone among a broader gathering.

So it’s a wonder we can agree on anything at all.

But there are ways to make it easier to agree with our neighbors. The best way is to be flexible in our definitions and our expectations. The rigid mindset is rarely helpful. For example, a recent president once declared, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” As if there were only two options available.

But there is always a third possibility if you look hard enough and if you’re willing to put in the work. It’s just that most of us aren’t. We want the quick fix, the easy answer. We’re wired for simplicity. If you define people as either with you or against you, it becomes a lot easier to order your world.

Understanding that the way we define the world needs to be fluid – this is a difficult concept for us to grasp, but it is achievable. We just need to slow down and be thoughtful.


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