You know how some conversations have a way of sticking with you? You’ll wake up re-living it in the middle of the night. Or something someone says later makes you think of it? Such a conversation happened to me in class the other day.
A participant in one of my business writing workshops was talking about getting a very expensive speeding ticket. He said “they” were going to charge him several hundred dollars, and that “they” were creating a real hardship for him.
The strangest thing happened. While I heard, and understood every word he said, I also heard my mother, in the background, saying to a four-year-old me, “If you do (whatever it was I should not do) you’ll have to pay the consequences.”
And while the “consequences concept” was a bit murky in my developing vocabulary, I sure as anything knew I did not want to have to pay for them! So what does consequences mean?
This is the point where the conversation kept coming back to me. I asked a number of friends and colleagues what they thought consequences meant. With about a 50-50 split, some thought consequences were punishments. Others thought they were the results of an action (e.g. speeding), or a happening (e.g., a flood).
“Consequences” is a word very much like “criticism.” Both words carry negative connotations for many, and in fact “consequences” is frequently used interchangeably with “punishment,” while “criticism” is often considered to be something negative expressed about someone or something. It’s true that this can be one meaning, but criticism is also “the activity of making careful judgments about the good and bad qualities of books, movies, etc.” So criticism can be good, too.
Let’s take a deeper look at the difference between “consequences,” and “punishment.”
Again, thank you Merriam-Webster. It sounds to me like the critical difference between these two words is who does what. For example, punishment is “… A penalty inflicted on an offender…” (presumably by an outside source). On the other hand, a consequence is “… Something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions…” (This could easily be an action done by the person who experiences the consequence(s).
So, a consequence could be a punishment. And a punishment could be a consequence. But not necessarily. We’ve all done things we’ve regretted – sometimes with unexpected, or unintended consequences. Sometimes knowing exactly what consequences to expect. And getting them.
Back to the point: Words create the way we look at our world, and telegraph how we see ourselves relating to it. A consequence may be a punishment – expected or not – that naturally follows some action that in many cases we have control over, and have chosen to do anyway. It is not always something that “they” inflict on us. Frequently we have chosen to bring down the consequence on ourselves.
What do the words we use say about us?
Is every consequence inflicted on us by someone else? A punishment? Or is each of us responsible for some of our own consequences – good and bad?
Sometimes things just happen, with no one responsible, and with no one at fault. How we understand our words, and how we use them can indeed determine how we see these things. What do our words say about our view of the world, and our place in it? Do we accept appropriate responsibility? Or do we see ourselves as victims? What secrets do our words reveal about us?
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