by Max Sirak
(Free audio version here. Or scroll down.)
Most of us, hunters and english teachers especially, know the answer to the question, "What's the most dangerous game?"
Maybe you remember reading Richard Connell's short story in middle or high school. Maybe, depending upon your age, you remember hearing Orson Welles portray General Zaroff. Or, maybe you've seen a variation of the tale told on a screen. It's been a steady storyline, easily found, since the titular RKO release in 1932.
Regardless of how it is you knew the correct answer, it's widely known. Humans are the most dangerous game. We aren't as strong as a bear, as fast as a cheetah, as poisonous as a snake, or as magical as a liger. But it doesn't matter.
We're smart and we're clever and that makes us perilous prey.
Now, if I were to ask you, what's the most dangerous word? what would you say?
A bit trickier, isn't it?
There are so many different directions you could go, which is why I've prepared some clues…
Definition By Negation
Often times, when attempting to understand anything, the easiest place to start is with what it's not.
– The most dangerous word is not the "N" word or the "R" word. It isn't a racial slur or a musical term re-appropriated and applied to mental development.
– It doesn't start with "G," "J," or "M." It isn't the name of an anthropomorphized sky-deity, his son, or any prophet.
– It's not an emotion or sensation. "H," "F," or "A" isn't its first letter. Though passionate dislike, the feeling of impending danger, and our visceral response to being slighted all aren't great and probably do lead to the dark side.
– It doesn't start with "I." It's not the word we use to describe someone opposed to diversity or it's beauty and benefits.
But, like many of the above terms, the most dangerous word does work to divide us from ourselves and each other.
Features and Functions
After gaining a sense of what something isn't, looking at its physical traits and usefulness is the next step in understanding what it is.
Examples – What does it look like? "Oh, it's a little bug that flies around at night and lights up. It's a lightning bug!" What does it do? "Well, it's a little piece of fabric which builds up a nice lather when rubbed with soap when it's wet. I bet it's good for cleaning. Let's call it a washcloth."
You get the idea.
The most dangerous word is…
– heavy. It weighs us down.
– seductive. It promises much.
– parasitic. It feeds on the very things it's supposed to deliver.
– confining. It impedes our freedom.
The word is should.
Stuck In Supposed To
Anytime we feel as though there is something we ought to do there's a should attached.
I should be married. You should go to church. We should have kids. They should have a career. He should have a savings account. She should be able to afford a place of her own. I should exercise. They should know what the hell they're doing by now. Etc.
Each of these statements is a value judgment. We agreed to some idea about life. Somewhere, sometime, for whatever reason, we decided certain things were good for us and our lives and others were bad. We represent these choices with our shoulds.
But there's a catch. Every should contains an expectation.
"I should get married because being married will make me happy." "I should have money in the bank because I'm a responsible adult and it will make me feel secure." In both instances happiness and security are the goals. Our shoulds are how we think we get there. If we get married we expect happiness. If we have a savings account we expect to feel secure.
Enter Unkept Promises
If given the choice between toil and struggle or effortless ease, most would sit back and coast. This is the siren song of should.
It tells us anything we've ever wanted in life is a few simple steps away, all we have to do is listen and follow. "Go here. Do this. Find her. Stop that. And then, it'll be yours. Trust me," it whispers.
What should never tells us is – the more shoulds we have the less satisfied we are.
Instead of appreciating all the good at the confluence of choice and chance that are our lives, we judge. We shake our heads in disgust with where we are and look wistfully ahead smiling toward better, brighter days on the horizon.
Every should is a checkpoint keeping appreciation at bay. Each one represents a pre-condition of contentment. Each should latches us to our ideas. And the more ideas we have about something, and the more attached we are to these ideas, the less OK we are with how it actually is.
Which Makes It Vampiric
The reason the most dangerous word is hazardous is because not only does it lie about it's future gains, but it feeds on and steals those assured benefits. Should doesn't often lead us to where we want to go. Instead it beckons us into the halls of regret.
Should brings us to regret in a couple ways. The first by coaxing us into doing. The second by persuading us to refrain. Both bedazzle the boardwalk toward regret.
If we do the things we think we're supposed to and don't get the results we want – regret.
If we avoid all the things we're supposed to and don't get the results we want – regret.
Either way it's entirely too easy to look back and think, "If only I had done <blank> differently then things would be better."
Being Confused Captives
There are our ideas about things, what we think they are or aren't, and then there's how they really are. The first are fantasies. The latter are facts. Here's an illustration from my life.
When I was a kid I thought being an adult meant having all the answers. In every situation it seemed like all the grown-ups around me were confident, in-charge, and certain. They knew what had to be done and had no problem doing it.
I didn't feel confident, in-charge, or certain. I was full of doubt. The world was big and confusing. There were lots of choices, many options, and tons of different ways to go. I figured as I lived more life, got older, and gained experience these feelings would give way to their opposites. All I had to do was wait.
So I did. The whole time assuming the doubt I felt would give way to confidence. And, when it didn't, I got down on myself. "It shouldn't be like this. I shouldn't feel the way I do."
I was confusing my ideas of how I thought things would be with how they really were. Then I was mad at myself for not feeling a certain way and angry at life for not being like I assumed it would be.
Overburdened by obligations, ensorcelled by expectations, and miserably misguided by my misgivings until I learned to recognize my camouflaged cage. I was trapped by my shoulds.
In Connell's story, General Zaroff hunts Sanger Rainsford because no other beast provides the level of challenge. Rhinos can't make tools. Elephants don't engineer environments. We can do both. And that's good when it comes to survival in the wilds.
But when it comes to living our lives in the civilized world, if we're not careful, the same cunning which allows us to outfox the competition can leave us flailing in a foxhole.
There are ideas, tactics, and strategies all around offering us wisdom and guidance. Most have worked for some. There's a book or website or YouTube video or podcast or sermon or parable telling you exactly what you should do to get whatever it is you want.
Only what might've been perfect for someone else might not be for you.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, "When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being."
Every should is a surrender. Every surrender is a concession to someone else's ideas about how to live. Every concession to someone else's ideas about how to live diminishes our humanity. Our humanity is what makes us such daunting prey.
And that's why should is the most dangerous word.
1) Movie poster – By RKO Radio Pictures (corporate author) (Internet Movie Poster Awards Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMost_Dangerous_Game_poster.jpg
2) Vampire by Justin McIntosh – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vampire_world_bank_protest17.jpg ;CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=113264
3) Candid of Eleanor and FDR – By Digitally restored from Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2205515