My 3 favorite 4-letter words

I am now so old that I can remember when George Carlin was young.

If you don’t even know who George Carlin was, it means you are now so young.

If you do know who he was, well, you probably can either recite the 7 dirty words you can’t say on television, or you may know someone else who can and does recite them. Only 5 of the 7 were 4-letter words. But they made George Carlin famous all the way to the US Supreme Court back in 1978.

My wife and I first saw Carlin when he was in short hair with a nice business suit and tie doing stand-up at Mr. Kelly’s on Rush Street in Chicago. It was the summer of 1970. His act was quite tame at that time. As in Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippie Weather Man, if that means anything to you. Not so much as a single 4-letter word in his entire act, far as we can recall.

George Carlin went on to re-invent himself within the next couple years and, well, the rest is mostly “dirty words you can only say on HBO” history.

I have my own favorite 4-letter words. Don’t get too excited! They may b-o-r-e you next to the ones you had in mind. To me, though, they’re the most exciting words in the English language for reasons I intend to explain here.

My words are: LOVE, NEED, HELP. Those 3 can explain most of my 71 year life story to date.

You see, I grew up hearing expressions like “falling in love,” “take whatever you need,” and “just help yourself.” Like many things I heard growing up, I was rather overgrown before I got around to questioning them. Now, however, I wish I’d have questioned them a long, long time ago. Maybe on my 21st birthday would’ve been about right. If I knew then what I know now, my life might have been a great deal more productive.

Here’s what I mean.

The word most people are thinking of when they say “love” is not “love.” Not at all. It is the word “like.” Like is a feeling, an emotion, comes and goes, changes over time, and something we humans universally fall in and out of. Love is altogether different. Love is something permanent while like is temporary. Love is a forever kind of covenant. Like is a for-the-time-being kind of contract. Love is unconditional. Like is conditional. Actually, “conditional love” is an oxymoron. Try reading I Corinthians 13 from the Bible and substitute the word “like” wherever you see the word “love.” You’ll get the picture.

The word most people are thinking of when they say “need” is not “need.” Nope. It is the word “want.” Want is also a feeling, comes and goes, changes over time, and is something we humans associate with our wishes and desires. Most of us can be reasonably happy for a long time in life despite not getting everything we want. A need, on the other hand, is something we, well, need no matter what. Can’t live without it. And there aren’t too many of these when you really stop to think about it. Air. Water. Nutrition. Physical protection. All pretty basic stuff. Things that don’t change around over time. Needs don’t come and go. They stay or we don’t stay, simple as that.

Then there’s the word we often think of as “help.” And, no, we may not think of it quite like it really is, either. At least I didn’t growing up. While younger, I often thought of helping my parents as really “pleasing” my parents. I would strive as a child to please by helping. After awhile, I learned this was true of other people as well. If I wanted to help them, I would have to please them. And vice versa. If I really loved people, I would help them get everything they wanted in ways that made them happy. I’d be able to please people by taking care of their wants or desires. Then that would prove that I really loved them.

Au contraire.

How very messed up my mind was for all the years that I failed to question those 3 words. Love. Need. Help. Failing to question those words according to my own way of thinking meant failing to love the very people who needed my help.

You see, I was too busy trying to like the people who wanted me to please them. And you know what? I didn’t. I didn’t like having to please them, and I could never satisfy all their wants. So I was failing but never knowing why.

Until it finally registered in my mind.

I really did fall in and out of like with people. All people. I fell in like with them whenever I could please them by giving them what they wanted, and when I couldn’t I would fall out of like with them. I’d feel trapped in relationships with people I could never really please. Couldn’t meet all their desires and wants, so they’d be frustrated and they wouldn’t like me either. And, well? What a waste of my life until I finally caught on and started asking questions.

I’ve had to learn the hard way that my best life, my truest narrative, isn’t about liking that feeling that comes from getting what I want or giving what others want. Nor is it about pleasing others or even myself. It’s about loving others who need help. And it turns out these people are everywhere I go in this world. People who need help to just get by, or to stay alive.   That’s what like can’t and won’t give them but love always can and will.

Turns out that helping people who need to just live safely and securely is………..what I like the best, want the most, and get the most pleasure from in all of life. Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Liking. Wanting. Pleasing. Those are the bi-products. The unexpected rewards that have come to me afterward. After my 3 favorite 4-letter words: Love. Need. Help.


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