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p’s and q’s

You know how it is when you get a word or phrase spinning around in your head, and pretty soon every conversation you’re in seems to contain an echo of it, and then it starts popping up in novels and on television shows, and then it keeps you awake at night, where you mumble to yourself in your sweaty sleepless sheets, “What does that even mean?!

Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, this week my ear-worm was, “Mind your p’s and q’s.”

I understand the sense of it — watch your language, use good manners, be on your best behavior. It’s not a bad suggestion. Even if it does sound a little fussy and persnickety, like how some fuddy-duddy might chide youngsters for displaying too much high-spiritedness.

Of course, I looked up the origins of the phrase, which are murky. For 175 years, people have been trying to figure out why the heck we say this.

The most likely explanation seems to be that originally it was intended literally, from one typesetter to another in a print shop, where if one wasn’t paying close attention, it would be fairly easy to confuse a lowercase p and q. Another similar theory is that it comes from handwriting instruction, teaching the English alphabet; the saying might just as well have been “mind your b’s and d’s.” Others posit that it refers directly to manners — “mind your pleases and thank you’s” — please shortened to p and thank you abbreviated q. I rather like the suggestion that it could have originated in 17th century taverns, where pub-tenders were expected to keep a careful handwritten tally of patrons’ pints and quarts of ale. Or it might have been 18th century sailors who were so instructed — to look their spiffy best by minding their “peas” (pea coats) and “queues” (ponytails). Nobody knows.

Anyway, this may or may not be interesting, depending on whether or not you’re a word-nerd like me. But what I was most fixated upon this week and what I think might be worth some additional consideration is the very idea of “to mind” something. And this is what kept jumping out at me from around every corner: “to mind” as in “to care about” or “to be careful with.”

Caring about something, attending to it, giving attention to it — mind your manners, mind yourself.  Also some of the negative turns of the phrase — pay no mind, never mind.  

In this context, all the idiomatic admonishments are very Science of Mind-y — pay attention to what you hope to emphasize, and don’t give mental energy to the things that you’d rather not experience. Lend the creative juice of your thought to what you want to see, know, be, and have. Accentuate the positive. Affirm the good. Don’t squander your tremendous mental resources, don’t pay them out unwisely, don’t buy trouble.

On the face of it, this seems pretty sound advice, as far as it goes.

We all know that we can buy unnecessary problems with our worry, through unconscious self-sabotage, by habitually repeating fruitless or destructive patterns. It’s great to recognize where and how we tend to do this. And it’s empowering to practice not doing it so much. We can get into the driver’s seat of our own thoughts and choose what to think about and how to think about it in a way that is likely to generate more desirable outcomes.

There are a couple of ways that I take issue with the idea, though. Or, it’s probably more accurate to say, I take issue with the way it gets expressed and applied sometimes.

First, I don’t love how it can make us afraid of our own thoughts. It seems counter-productive if the power of positive thinking in any way gets turned into the ineptitude of negative thinking. Or the incapacity, the impairment, the failure of negative thinking. Ick. As soon as we turn this principle against ourselves in any way, we miss the main point of it — which is: you’re a magnificent, beautiful, creative entity and the world awaits the shining light that you are! And it quickly can become a vicious cycle of self-recrimination where we become critical or fearful of our thoughts and our being, which makes us even less empowered, which leads to more shame and blame, and so on.

Second, is something that we talked about a couple of weeks ago — how a bit of “negative” thinking actually can help us to be more effective meeting the real challenges and obstacles we all encounter throughout our lives. I’m not talking about despair, not doomsaying, not fatalism. But, rather, using our wondrous imagination to reckon honestly with reality. Instead of a one-note affirmation of what I want and a la-la-la (fingers in my ears) denial of what I don’t want, I can entertain different contingencies, including the possibility that things might go a little differently from how I hope. We can be forthright about both our hopes and our fears without worrying that being honest with ourselves and each other is going to make something horrible happen.

“Pay no mind” seems like willful disregard of our concerns. And probably an impossible charge to boot. Like telling someone not to imagine a pink elephant knowing darned well that’s all she’ll be able to imagine as soon as you say it.

“Nevermind” just sounds passive-aggressive. If someone starts to ask me something or tell me something, then stops and says, “never mind,” of course I’m going to mind!

I’m thinking, though, that there’s something quite useful in the idea of “minding our p’s and q’s.”

Paying attention to what our minds are doing. Whether we’re talking about the language we’re using, and the points (not qoints) we really want to make. Or the relative volume of the thoughts we’re tallying up each day — am I serving myself only a small pint of self-esteem while guzzling quart after quart of self-criticism? Or the please and thank-you’s of it — am I approaching my life with gratitude, and what am I asking for?

I don’t think it’s really so much that we need to worry about negative thoughts creating negative outcomes.  I’m pretty sure that a Loving Intelligent Universe can tell the difference between my hopes and my fears, and won’t dump a bunch of consequential crap on me just because I forgot myself for a second and worried about something. 

The main problem with habitual negativity isn’t the consequence of it, it’s the immediacy. It’s self-defeating and self-punishing in the present.  It creates a miserable experience right now.

Sure, we’re all forging our tomorrows all the time, but we’re always creating them out of ourselves, today.  And while approaching life with unchecked fear and dread may or may not directly affect what happens in the future, it sure as heck makes for a scary and dreadful present.  So for heaven’s sake, let’s start now. What’s an empowering thought that can make an immediate difference, that right now can turn a q into a p or vice versa?

I can’t wait to be with you this Sunday, July 17, 10:00am at Maple Street Dance Space. XO, Drew

©2022 Drew Groves

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