What I’ve noticed lately:
- New leaves unfold on the edge of vision, palely green, barely attached to their branches, clouds of color floating in the woods. Then redbud burns through, its magenta flowers clustered close to the trunks. Then the greens grow brighter, more attached.
- My students fall back on “I feel like” to suture their thoughts together: “I feel like Le Guin is saying. . .” Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t ban the word I outright, so I’m left trying to explain what’s wrong with this phrase. Is it the grammatical error of like? That is, our state of mind is not metaphorically similar to one in which Le Guin would mean whatever she means, our bodily or emotional condition—our feelings—do not suggest her meaning; we are not like an old man with a trick knee who can truly say he “feels like rain coming on.” Thus, we don’t feel like Le Guin means that we must move beyond our current ideas of happiness, we feel that Le Guin etc. But that’s hard to explain, a grammatical haze I don’t need; it reminds me of the despair I felt when one student asked me, “But why isn’t happy a verb?”
I’m not the only one to zero in on “I feel like.” In this Jezebel column, Katie J. M. Baker investigates the phrase’s rising use, especially among young women. She concludes that although it may suggest cringe-worthy weakness, it’s useful and respectful; her commenters trace it to therapy and office-speak, noting that “I feel like” is conflict-proof. Yes, and that’s exactly what bothers me: how “I feel like” replaces what could be an argument with a mere feeling. I may not “feel like” Peter Singer repeats himself, but if my students do, I can hardly say they’re wrong, because these are their feelings. And as for this phrase’s claim to superior respectfulness, we misunderstand the nature and purpose of argument if we think that a wash of interchangeable and equally valid “feelings” is preferable.
Maybe I should tell my students this. Feelings are not what we’re after; we want ideas backed up with evidence, we want proof. Or perhaps I should say that “I feel like” is clutter. Simply proceed with “Le Guin means. . .” Or perhaps this is a weak use of I. Your name is at the top of the page, I tell them; everyone knows this is what you think.
Any and all of these would be correct and appropriate answers for my college English students. But so far I haven’t addressed the matter at all, other than to highlight the offending words; I think—I feel like—there might be something more to it.
Recently, I sat on a bench in an art gallery (CAM Raleigh) in a dark and almost-vacant installation, waiting for art. Three spills of monofilament hung from the ceiling and pooled a little on the floor; dimly illuminated, they looked like ghost trees or the plaits of ancient giantesses. I had the sense the spills were moving, or perhaps changing color ever so slightly, from one pixie dust shade to another; I thought I could hear a faint whirr, like a moth’s wings by my ear. But when I tried to zero in on one change, kinetic, chromatic, or aural, it vanished—nothing but a wish or my pulse.
Later, I found out that the artwork—Illuminationem by Travis Donovan—is meant to gently wind and unwind to the rhythms of the sun, the moon, and the tides. When it works, it’s meditative, meditative and magic, as its three spinning strands fall into or out of sync, lag behind or race ahead. When I saw it, though, its finicky engines were on the fritz: thus that faint purr, fade, shift.
The other day I heard a professional say I feel like—a man being interviewed on NPR. He’d studied the number of deaths along a certain road leading into a remote American military base, and when the NPR host asked him what he was saying, whether the number meant something, instead of pulling out a statistical correlation—“the accident rate here is 5% higher than what we would expect for a similar group of people on a similar road” or something like that—he began, “I feel like. . .” and went on to give his feeling that something was wrong.
Now, when he said “I feel like,” you might think my hackles rose, but it wasn’t that; instead, my hair stood on end. It was as if the feeling was more important than the data could be—or as if what he was studying had turned out to be somehow occult, invisible to the usual points of proof.
What if cause and effect might sometimes come into being at the same time? What if, listening closely, you might hear the rustling of atoms split off by the forces of the future? Magical thinking. This morning I ran across this, in Lyn Hejinian’s The Cold of Poetry:
It is not the unknown but the imminence of the known that is mysterious, poetic, producing a state of heightened syntax.
And I noticed how the green I wasn’t sure a month ago I really saw now spreads over the woods: spring, unlikely and sure.
Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC.