The Most Powerful Verb

Pick up a writing manual or style guide and you will find exhortations for writers to use powerful, active verbs. These guides usually list “to be” and all its forms as one of the weakest verbs writers should avoid. Writing littered with “to be” verbs makes the author appear lazy and unimaginative. Instead of writing, “This pizza is delicious,” one could write the stronger sentence, “This pizza tastes delicious.” In the first example, the sentence only implies the pizza encountering something other than itself. It merely states the pizza is. In the second example, the pizza affects the eater’s sense of taste. The pizza evokes a response from the person eating it.

We would say, “There is a rock,” is a far less interesting sentence than, “The rock plummeted down the canyon wall.” What a shame. In the reality outside the written world, “to be” is the most powerful verb we have. The fact the rock exists at all is far more powerful than its plummeting down a canyon. The rock’s ability to plummet or crush or sit depends on there being a rock in the first place.

All our actions for good or ill, all our successes and failures, depend on our existence. Your abilities to create music, swim in a lake, or hug your family are not greater than the fact that you are. Perhaps we do not consider the wonder of our being because it is not something we accomplished. You did not bring about your existence, you received it. But you are. And that is truly an amazing thing.

We take existence for granted by subordinating it to utility. The tree in my front yard shades our house and it looks nice, but it is not wondrous primarily because of what it accomplishes for my family. Its very existence is something to behold. The tree is at once both gratuitous and necessary. That one tree does not necessarily have to be, yet it does exist all the same. And the very fact that it is, leaves an indelible mark on all reality. The tree is a part of this world and this world would not be the world we know without it.

We unfortunately see the wonder of being rarely and usually when the major turns of life overwhelm us. The birth of a child awakens us to the gratuitousness of existence. This new child comes into the world seemingly out of nowhere and we see her existence as a gift beyond our powers of accomplishment. The death of a loved one reminds us just how necessary that person’s existence was. Their absence forever changes the world and no amount of healing will ever fully replace the gap they left. Birthdays can be annual reminders of the miracle of existence, if we take the opportunity to reflect.

Some languages don’t use the verb “to be” much—it is implied by the syntax of the sentence. But your existence is not a verb implied by the syntax of our world. Your being is both a gift and necessity. Further, your neighbor’s, friend’s, mother’s, co-worker’s, classmate’s, child’s, brother’s, and enemy’s existence is both a gift and necessity. “To be” is truly the strongest verb imaginable.

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