By Sarah Suleman (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)
Persistence is a word that correlates strongly with opposition on a socially accepted level. Typically, when a person is labelled to be ‘persistent’, it is an unfavorable trait. But why is this? For this weeks’ edition, I dug deep into the etymology of this word simply to find out why this word stimulates so much negativity.
Being someone with a predominantly confrontational nature has led me to regularly question how it is possible for me to prove my point without being called confrontational or argumentative or negative words of the like. I remember visiting a near family member along with many other relatives of mine. As I listened to a conversation with broadly differing points of view amongst two siblings, I unconsciously waited for an elder to yell, “You’re arguing again?!” or something like, “Can’t you just let it go? Don’t be a sore loser.” But to my surprise, such a comment didn’t pass. This led me to wonder the circumstances under which a persistent person can be seen to be ‘good’ and vice versa.
It’s ironic that the word itself arises from the Latin meaning ‘to continue steadfastly.’ To me, that meaning bears a strong semblance to a word like ‘strive’ however, striving is looked at positively, while persisting is not. Here is where the misconception begins. Neil Kokemuller says, “The word persistent can have either a positive or negative – good or bad – connotation, depending on the circumstances of its use and the listeners’ interpretation.” He goes on to define persistence as “Sticking to an idea, opinion or course of action despite extreme challenges or difficult odds.”
It turns out that the reason persistence carries such a negative aura is because it is interpreted to be a form of changing the opposite persons’ thought process. While instead, a claim should be focused on both sides of the story; persistent people are hell bent on proving their point regardless of what another might have to say.
That’s what the internationally spoken language elaborates to me. But delving further into the nature of the word, it is plausible to say that a listeners’ interpretation is what primarily determines how a persistent person is looked at. And no, it is not whether your point is valid or invalid. It is much more than that. In my opinion, it is dependent on a speakers’ tone, choice of words and ability to accept defeat. Going back to the stated definition earlier, persistence is associated with sticking to an idea despite difficult odds. As you can see, the idea isn’t to ignore or to destroy the odds; but simply to withstand.
While the general idea of persistence being good or bad may be something simple to understand; it is very easily overlooked when passing a mental, judicial or verbal judgement about someone’s attitude. We often assess that if a person is resistant to drop their idea; they are unfriendly and incapable of accepting another’s opinion. As the famous saying goes, ‘to each his own’ which means that everyone is indeed entitled to their own opinion regardless of what the world around them feels. It is important to remember that our beliefs must be shaped by our own intellects because otherwise, we’ll spend our whole lives watering someone else’s tree.
Despite my belief that persistence is a likeable quality because it shows a persons’ strength and perseverance, I also accept that persistence can be your undoing. Therefore, it is important that both ends – listeners and speakers take into account the circumstances and arguments under which persistence is used. While one must be open to learning, he must also not let others’ statements or judgements be his own because then they are never really his/hers.
Words like argumentative and persistent have similar meanings but with different connotations. The context in which a statement is made should determine our judgement of whether or not a persistent attitude is problematic or advancing.
Treading upon this question was a learning experience for me too and its quite a relief that I had a rare discussion this evening during which I pressed an idea and backed it up with relevant facts and not once was I told by the listener to stop being so combative. Many times I have felt clichéd feelings like, “Nobody ever listens to me” or “I’m not arguing, I’m just trying to explain my point of view.” And I know for certain that I’m not alone. It was a relief for me and it’s my hope that it will be for you too when you realize that combativeness is not always a bad quality.
As you finish this article, I’d like to give you a heads up that I just persistently persuaded you and let alone being offended, you probably didn’t even realize I used it! By making you feel like it is normal to feel offended about how people call you combative, I quietly opened up a tab in your head that became more susceptible to the things I said. It’s really all about perspective, sometimes we only say a person is persistent (negatively) because we don’t agree! But in that case, aren’t we persistently resisting their idea too?
The Holy Qur’an has the perfect combination and remedy for every situation. Allah (swt)tells us to couple persistence with patience and perseverance. Remember those 3 P’s, they’re your tools to expressing yourself and your ideas with ease in a social setting!