I still remember the day that my relationship to the word background changed.

I was sitting next to my friend Alex in the computer lab. It was fourth or fifth grade. Alex and I were pals for what felt like eons (isn’t it funny how deeply and quickly we can bond with others as kids?), so we paired up to work on a paper or a project together. Then, the bombshell.

I typed out backround.

“That’s not how you spell background,” Alex told me, “There’s a in it.”

Where did this sneaky, deceptive come from? Why was it there? And why were we talking about the ground all of a sudden?

Priding myself on my spelling even when I was young, I remember feeling like I no longer knew this word like I thought I did. And, that it was my dear friend Alex (who still couldn’t tell time by reading a clock) who told me this, I was all the more upended by my misuse of this common word.

My life could have taken a very different turn at this juncture.

I strained to wrap young my mind around this egregious lie that the whole world had all been perpetuating at my expense. On the edge of second-guessing my reality, renouncing society and becoming an infamous hacker who would ask questions like, What is the Matrix?, I somehow managed to let background go and accept it for what it was.

…but I still don’t completely trust that word.

We carry relationships to words with us wherever we go.

Think about how words like money, debt and wealth make you feel as you read them. Whose voice do you hear in your head when you read a word like purpose? What about meaning or fulfillment? Do you feel a slight tingle in your forehead when you read dreams? Feel the rhythm of your pulse when you see legacy? Stand a little taller in your seat when you think, dharma?

You don’t need to be a writer to know what it feels like to have personal relationships to different words. We all carry these relationships with us, because words are more than symbols that we use to communicate.

Words can have as much impact on us as the weighty ideas, emotions, beliefs and thoughts that they represent.

Words carry weight. You could say that words carry stories with them.

  • Sometimes these relationships are silly and nostalgic, as with me and background. 
  • Words like home or holidays might warm your heart and transport you to a time of childlike ease and comfort.
  • A word like book might remind you of a dream that’s long been tucked in your pocket.

The words we consider weighty, sticky, empowering or dis-empowering differ from one person to the next.

And yet, it’s our personal relationships to words that influence how we communicate with ourselves and with others–the choices we make, the decisions we avoid, and the quality of our everyday lives.

That’s the story of me and the word community.

This word was one that I followed like the Holy Grail when I left my job in 2009.

When I started a new chapter in my life as an aspiring author and entrepreneur, community was a still-new buzzword touted in digital circles amongst solo-entrepreneurs, globe-trotting unconventionalists and self-made writers whose ranks I wanted join.

Community was one of the cornerstones of making such a life–it was touted as an unshakable principle that would lead to success.

Even though it was a months’ old adage, it was hard-ingrained and safe to assume: community was everything.

If you wanted to make it, you needed a community. To build one. To find one. To gather one around you, your work, your ideas, your beliefs. It was about marketing and business-building and income and service and providing for people.

Community represented creating a tribe, mobilizing people around an idea. Community was a highway to smart business for the right customers, and serving those who needed service. Community meant helping people, and making some change in the world starting with whatever efforts you could muster all by yourself.

Books like Tribes and Career Renegade and Crush It! and The Art of Nonconformity all dished on this new reality of a rapidly changing world and what was very possibly attainable if you understood (and surrendered to) the power of Community.

That was 2010. And that was what community meant to me.

But over time, I began to resent my very relationship to the word Community.

Community started to feel like a hollow, shallow representation of people. When I heard community, I saw a collection of avatars. Names on an email list. Likes on a Facebook Page.

My relationship to community had become the symbol of people; a collection of digital footprints, not souls.

And I didn’t really like that.

The further I traveled in my entrepreneurial journey, the less my relationship with the word community represented what I wanted and needed it to mean.

So I started to rewrite my relationship to the word community in 2014 by making changes to important things in my life and work:

  • I stopped living on the road and got myself an apartment in my home state of Rhode Island so that I could be more present with a small, tight-knit community of local yogis who, I felt, could teach me a lot about the true meaning of Community.
  • I committed myself to a 200-hour yoga teacher training, and felt a small group of strangers slowly knit small moments and shared experiences into deep relationships–a community.

Now, here we are. My relationship to the word Community is a lot different today. I might define it like,

/// Genuine, meaningful and supportive relationships that exist between a group and that operate independent of any organizer or cause.

I feel good about what community means to me in 2015.

So much so, that I feel more able to support my global “community” of readers and clients who are mostly based online, all through this redefinition of a word that I thought I had known so well before.

By looking closely at our relationships to words, we can finesse the direction of our lives and make the quality of our journeys all the more rewarding.

All it takes is some reflection. Self-awareness. For example, by playing a word game and reflecting on how certain words make us feel.

So, let’s play a word game together.

Grab a pen and paper. Let’s tinker with 10 words.

I picked this list off the top of my head. Some of these words are trendy social media buzzwords (like community), or rooted in sub-culture movements and popular books (as with desire), or even more broadly in American politics (as with change).

Consider this list of words below. Write a few snap reactions to each word.

  1. No  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  2. Habit  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  3. Change  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  4. Desire  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  5. Community  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  6. Prayer  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  7. Selfish  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  8. Talent  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  9. Money  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________
  10. Responsibility  feels like ________  I hear ________  I think of ________ I remember ________

Don’t judge your answers, just pour what comes to mind. It’s easy to over-think. This game works best if you’re honest and use snap-reactions.

By ‘pouring’ out instinctive, mini responses, you can start to see threads of your relationships to these words.

Here are a few of my answers

  • Community  feels like  a chosen family   I hear an old high school teacher referring to the word, and thinking “We don’t have this here.”  I think of  a room full of yogis sharing pizza and bubbly after a Thursday night class  I remember  thinking that ‘community’ was much different not so long ago. 
  • No  feels like  being negative, shutting someone out, feeling guilty as a result   I hear  myself innately react, ‘why?’ ‘why not?’  I think of  how saying ‘no’ has actually enabled me to say ‘yes’ to the life I want  I remember  how saying ‘no’ wasn’t personal at that time; it was just about me choosing, trusting, and honoring myself  
  • Prayer  feels like  offering, action, thought, dedication   I hear  the booming narration of Catholic priests on Sunday mornings when I was growing up   I think of  moving in yoga as a form of body-prayer  I remember  sneaking into an empty chapel most mornings in college to pray to start my days 

Starting to see the threads?

Give ’em a tug. Pull at ’em. Mess that cozy word-sweater up.

Unravel the unconscious cloak, and take the risk of feeling exposed here–reflecting on how these important, weighty words make you feel will help you rewrite your relationships to the words:

  1. Look at how the subtle workings of your mind interpret these familiar words.
  2. Witness inklings of your relationship to these words, right there on the paper.
  3. Take this opportunity to consider redefining your relationship to a few of these words.

Which call out to you?

Which feel most important for your year ahead?

Now, let’s toy with redefining your relationship to these words.

Pose some questions. What if? What if the opposite were true? What if it meant something else–something completely different? What if it was a key, a gateway, a tool you could use to your benefit? What if another word (money, talent, prayer) wasn’t so powerful after all, but just a representation of something?

Here, I’ll give it a go with you.

1) What if ‘No’ wasn’t a negative, but a liberator?

An exercise in discernment? An act of self-trust? A matter of freeing more time, breathing room, personal energy to do more of what I want/need?

2) What if ‘Habit’ is overrated?

What if ‘habit’ evolved into ‘ritual’? A sacred action that was repeated with consciousness, consideration and intention–not unconscious automation?

3) What if my desire to create ‘Change’ wasn’t so sweeping, so “big,” that it becomes overwhelming?

What if, instead, ‘change’ is thought of like gradual adjustments? Authentic, earnest innovation, earned over time?

4) What if ‘Desire’ wasn’t selfish or self-centered wanting?

What if desire was my soul telling me what I need?

5) What if ‘Community’ isn’t just a group of people connected to a single cause? 

What if community was a group of people whose connection invites deep care of one another?

6) What if ‘Prayer’ wasn’t silent?

What if prayer was spoken aloud? Not just thought, but enacted? Shared? Deeded?

7) What if ‘Selfish’ meant unwavering self-love?

Non-negotiable self-care? And, thus, not only survival, but dharma? And purpose?

8) What if ‘Talent’ is overrated?

What if talent isn’t “God-given,” but a hard-earned journey in practice, dedication, and care?

9) What if ‘Money’ was a means of self-assessing service, work and giving?

And what if abundance was more than a feeling of “having a lot”?

10) What if ‘Responsibility’ didn’t imply stress, anxiety or burden?

What if responsibility was a reminder of what I’ve always wanted to begin with?

What if? What if? What if?

You’re already halfway to rewriting your relationships to the words that may well shape the direction of your journey in 2015.

I love words. They fascinate and intrigue me, stir me with curiosity and outright obsess me.

But what fascinates me the most is that our relationships to words can truly affect the quality of our lives. Everyday life. Little moments. All of the passing thoughts, common conversations and ordinary exchanges that, when summed up, make life.

Words aren’t just sketches on a page, or pixels on a computer screen.

Words carry stories. Histories. Dreams, struggles and ideals.

And it’s a simple, little exercise like this that allows us to embrace self-exploration as a means to heighten our self-awareness.

When we understand the power of words and what words represent to us, we can start to change their meanings–and reshape the journey of our lives as we live them.

What words might you redefine your relationships to in 2015?


P.S. – My editor Christy wrote to me after she proofed this piece yesterday and I thought you’d enjoy where this post led her:

I used to hate the word “desire”, associated it with a Harlequin romance novel mindset, until I looked it up and discovered what its bones really mean. Since you mentioned it in your list, I thought you might find it interesting:

desire (v.) early 13c., from Old French desirrer (12c.) “wish, desire, long for,” from Latin desiderare “long for, wish for; demand, expect,” original sense perhaps “await what the stars will bring,” from the phrase de sidere “from the stars,”

How cool is that? Desire is expectation of divine delivery. Eyes on the stars, and all that.   :)

It’s way cool, Christy! Talk about an amazing little word. Happy word-hunting to you, my friend!