The ‘R’ word

A taboo word brings more discussion

I recently wrote about meditation, and a pair of readers sent a response that’s too good to ignore, which was my first impulse after I stopped laughing.

This attentive pair of presumed meditators took me to task, or at least dropped me off near task, over my use of a word. That’s happened before.

This time I used what these people refer to as the “R” word—"retarded,” which is a variant of “tardo.” If you haven’t read the column in question, and I don’t suppose you have, you might think that I called some sensitive soul “retarded,” hurting the poor dummy’s feelings and prompting the letter writers to be offended at my callousness and lack of consideration for another person. You’d be wrong, though.

I don’t think I’ve ever called anybody “retarded.” The way my memory is, I’m not gonna swear to it, but I invite all and sundry to submit evidence to the contrary and we’ll see.

The people in question object to my use of “retarded” in reference to a puppy, the main character in a metaphor for the way our minds tend to wander when we meditate, especially when we begin the practice. If I were housebreaking a puppy by training it to eliminate on newspaper, I wouldn’t be angry at it or mean to it because it didn’t immediately get the hang of what I wanted it to do. I’d keep putting the puppy back on the paper until he understood, or at least stopped peeing on the floor, whether he understood or not.

They write, in part, “When Mr. Porter calls a puppy the ‘R’ word, this is almost like calling a baby that has not been potty trained the ‘R’ word.” Since I managed not to call a baby “retarded,” I think they meant this as a compliment. Thank you. It wasn’t easy.

They go on, “Having patience will bring awareness to yourself and other people so that you will bring [sic] able to achieve a task without the use of the ‘R’ word.” The flaw here is that the letter writers assume that not using the word “retarded” is my goal. It isn’t.

My goal now is to persuade these particular letter writers to get help. Think about it. Here are two probably kind and gentle—and maybe smart, too, for all I know—people for whom the word “retarded” is taboo. Fine. I suppose I have taboos, too, although I can’t think of one off hand. And, not content with avoiding the word “retarded” themselves, they don’t want me to use the word “retarded” either, which is a little pushy, not to mention completely hopeless.

Mind you, I haven’t called any actual puppy “retarded,” which probably wouldn’t bother most puppies anyway. I didn’t even refer to a puppy as “retarded.” So sensitive and thoughtful is this pair that they object to my referring to my own personal imaginary puppy as “retarded.” My imaginary puppy.