We’re in an era when the word “evolve” has become a catch-phrase, either as a passive or active verb, to mean what “enlighten” and “enlightenment” used to mean a decade or two ago. Single women are looking for “evolved” men. Couples are seeking to have “evolved” sex. Politicians are praised when they take “evolved” or “progressive” positions on various issues.
Anytime we use a word like “evolve”, we are attempting an end-run around our need to communicate. We are engaged in a kind of verbal shorthand which, to paraphrase the late J. Krishnamurti, puts an end to all creative understanding and shuts down the process of experiencing another person. We are also setting up a group of people as further along the journey of life than others, which is the root of elitism, whether it’s the blatant elitism of Ambercrombie & Fitch or a New Age elitism that lurks just beneath the surface of the drum circles and the meditation classes.
I am making a commitment, now, to rid my writing of this word. Although it’s fair to give people credit for their commitment to personal or collective progress, the word itself doesn’t explain anything or make communication easier. It’s been used as a code word for anything from a commitment to equality between the sexes, veganism, environmentalism, being a Democrat, or the practice of sexual yoga — in other words, any point of view with which the speaker is in accord. And it hints — sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly — of elitism, setting up a hierarchy between those who are evolved or evolving and those who are not. Vegans are evolved; meat-eaters are not. People who meditate are evolved; those who don’t are stuck. You get the idea.
Not only that, but use of the passive participle (“evolved”) carries a connotation of passivity, as though “evolved” is something that happens to someone. Anyone who has done a lot of work on themselves knows that it’s a long, hard, and quite active struggle. Old habits die hard, and new ones are formed painstakingly, often after repeated trial and error. I think our choice of words should reflect that struggle.
Instead of using a catchword, how about describing in some level of detail what makes the lifestyle, community, or practice in question “evolved”? If that takes too long, try using one of these alternatives:
Changing. This is my personal favorite. It describes what you’re getting at, but it’s also judgment-free. For those who are trying to rid their lives of their own and others’ judgments, this should be your first choice. Think of an evolving man, and then think of a changing man. Which sounds less pretentious?
Transforming. If you really need a $5 word, try this one. It connotes change on a deeper, more profound level. Behavior can change, but a human being can transform. Though the word also implies some mysterious alchemical process, it’s relatively benign and won’t set anyone up on a pedestal.
Morphing. A word once used by animators to describe a particular special effect, the word is now used to describe rapid, total change — usually physical, which is why it’s my least favorite of the alternatives. Also, why use a Greek word when an English one is available?
There’s no need to get too stressed out over words. But, as we move through life, we should take the time to experience people, and be wary of anything offered as a shortcut to real communication, or that sets up ground rules for belonging.