From a Reality loving Grammar Nerd
So I nerded out hard on a language podcast this morning. One segment was about grammar (sweaty palms) and how it is a tool we use daily without even knowing it. Phuc Tran, a Vietnamese-American, now a professor and tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon (where else?) talked about the subjunctive, a grammatical mood with which I have a very intense love-hate relationship. I won’t bore you with that here, but it is worth explaining briefly for the purpose of this post.
The subjunctive was explained to me in my high school French class as a “mood” (like a verb tense, sorta, kinda, ish) that deals with the possibilities. Yeah, I didn’t really get it until about 10 years of French later (and even now I try to avoid it in my second language), but Wikipedia actually came in clutch with their definition saying, “Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred” .
Took me a while too.
Let’s just focus on that bit about “unreality” though. The subjunctive is used when we speak about things that did not happen or have not yet happened, things that are not reality. We are speaking in the subjunctive when we say things like “If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the store” or “If I were rich, I’d quit my job.”
Both of those situations deal with things that did not happen or are not happening—unrealities.
It’s pretty neat we have that feature in our language, right? Vietnamese does not, apparently.
But how neat is it, really? How neat is it to live in an unreality?
Not very neat, especially according to Byron Katie, the author of a book I’ve been on and off reading since Christmas called Loving What Is. In the book, Katie says this, “The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. . . . I am a lover of what is… because it hurts when I argue with reality.”
This spoke to me hard y’all.
The subjunctive, the unreality, the Byron Katie and the arguing with reality… I thought about all of the times I had been frustrated, hurt, confused, annoyed, impatient. They had all been moments of arguments with reality.
The subjunctive helps us do that. It can be a great thing—like when we use it imagine possibilities that help advance us or motivate us to change— but when it tears us away from the present moment into a reality that isn’t ours and makes us unhappy with the one that is, that’s when the subjunctive sucks.
(It also sucks on a French grammar exam when you have to decide whether or not a particular sentence calls for it, but that’s another story for another time.)
When do you argue with reality? Do you ever win? What has ever come of thinking "if this hadn’t happened I’d be doing this" or "man if things were this way or that, I’d sure feel/be ______" ? Has it ever changed what is?
Now, I am hyper focused on my use of the subjunctive, but I don’t anticipate that being your takeaway here. I hope that your takeaway is much more than a newfound appreciation for the grammar you possess (although that's pretty cool, too.) I hope that you start to pay attention to all of the times you've lived in an unreality. I hope that you confront the thoughts you have that contradict reality. I hope that you begin to recognize when you are arguing with reality and that you find a way to love what is.
(Which, by the way, is the indicative mood…)