The Most Important Word in Any Language


My high school literature teacher in Argentina surprised us with a question: “Who can tell me the most important word in Spanish?” Fascinated by the challenge, I vividly recall my classmates’ answers. The usual teacher pleasers jumped in with “Torah” or “God.” Martha, the most creative among us (and murdered in the terrorist bombing of the AMIA Central Community Center in Buenos Aires by Iran in 1994), raised her hand and effusively said, “Art.” Gustavo showed no hesitation when in all seriousness, pronounced the name of his beloved soccer club, “River Plate.” But “friends” ended as the top choice.

After listening to our answers, the teacher kept silent for a minute, looked at us intensely, and softly uttered just one letter, “y.” Translating that single-letter word into English demands three letters forming “and.” Like a choir, we replied, “Y que?” “And…what?” With a twinkle in her eyes, our teacher melodically whispered a prolonged “Y.” “And” then, she left us wandering in the land of “and.” In her unexplained “and” we floated in a paradox of an unanswered continuity.  

“AND” and “BUT”

It took me over four decades to decode my teacher’s message. “And” and its hidden wisdom was disclosed to me last week from two unrelated sources as if somehow, somewhere, my teacher concealed it and revealed it to me now with a purpose.

My first encounter with the meaning of the elusive “and” came from a book I ordered for my class on “Happiness” at the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (Latin-American main rabbinical school in Buenos Aires) called “Finding Unshakeable Happiness,” edited by Donna Miller. The book consists of 30 honest, deep, and wise personal testimonies by women on their journey to fulfillment. The “and” revelation came from Amy Rogers’ “Learning How to Rise and Thrive When Life Gets Turned Upside Down.” Amy and her four and six-year-old children were suddenly abandoned by her husband after moving to a new town and beginning a high-stress job. Amy felt broken, lonely, and devastated. Day after day, she pretended to be well for her children, while every night, she collapsed in pain and exhaustion. Facing complex challenges, Amy teaches, “However, with the subtle replacement of ‘but’ with ‘and’ you learn another way to retrain your brain. ‘And’ provides the opportunity to reframe the narrative…I could stay stuck in the ‘but,’ or I could challenge myself and define the ‘and.’ Instead of my story shaping me as a victim and failure, I could instead be a survivor and hero.”

I read these few lines, put the book down, and went back and forth between “but” and “and.” Wow, those two words made such an opposite impact on my energy, optimism, and spirit! Each is so short and so powerful. “But” brought me to the land of excuses and dead ends. “And” opened horizons.

“And” then, as I finished the book on happiness, I went straight to Maria Sirois’s “A Short Course in Happiness After Lost.” “And” then, as if an invisible line starting with my literature teacher and then Amy’s journey, to finally this book had suddenly been highlighted, I read, “We learn tools and principles of positivity, we discuss the freedom to choose and the possibility of the and.” “And” knocks at the doors of possibilities. When life feels trapped in a dizzying carousel, an “and” detains it and opens unexpected passages.  


“And,” reading those unrelated books, united by chance or mystery, I understood the deep wisdom of my literature teacher. I suspect my teacher knew that each of her student’s journeys at the age of so many doubts and uncertainties, as adolescence began transforming us, needed an “and.” She made sure that we always searched for a path into the future. In one letter, “Y,” she told us, “Despite your growing pains, always explore your lives. There is a further destination if you activate the power of ‘and.'”  

Our life is our main novel. “And” sometimes the chapters seem so dark, so awful. “And” we get tired, exhausted. “And,” we feel ambushed. “And” we may get writer’s block. “And” death, illness, failure, and pain may feel like our final chapter. At those moments, a short and unpretentious word should fill us; “and.” “And” that “and” may remain unanswered for a while. Then, it must marinate in our brains and guts waiting to flourish.

At fleeting moments of clarity, we may realize that the very name of life is “and.” “And “if so, somehow it must continue, even if the next chapter is fragile or risky.  

Hope inhabits the palace of the “and.” “And” builds a nest for the possible.

“And” I could not end this blog but with the word “and.” Because the novel continues. “And,” for that very potential, I feel so excited for you and me.


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