This is retold by Rev. Dr. David Bruner from a book by Elizabeth Gilbert, called Eat, Pray, Love. The author was spending a while in Rome trying to recover from a difficult divorce and thinking things through. She was having a great time, but commented to a friend of hers there that thought she loved Rome, she didn't really feel like she belonged there. It wasn't her city.
"What do you mean?" her friend asked her.
Just then a stereotypical Roman woman walks by: slender, tall, with long hair, wearing a mini skirt with a long slit in the side, expensive sunglasses the size of a sports car, with a little boutique dog on a jeweled leash.
The author points to the woman and says, "That woman can live here and I can live here, but only one of us truly belongs in Rome."
Her friend replies with, "Maybe you just don't understand Rome's word."
Word? She asks what he means. "Every city has one word that describes it and most of its inhabitants. Maybe your word and Rome's word are not the same."
So she asks the obvious question: "What's Rome's word."
"Rome's word is sex," was the answer. "In Rome, the majority of people are thinking about sex all the time. They think about it when they get up, they think about it while they're at work, and think about it when they get home."
"Really?" she asked. "Even at the Vatican?"
The Vatican, she was told isn't really part of Rome, and their word is different. "What's their word, then?"
"Are you sure their word isn't faith?"
"No, trust me, their word is power."
She wondered about it, and they started discussing what the word of various other cities would be. New York, she figured, would have to be a verb. It would probably be achieve. Los Angeles would be similar (but very different), with succeed. Just then a friend of hers from Sweden came by and got involved in the conversation, so they asked her what the word for Stockholm would be. She said conform.
This story was brought up in a sermon, with the point being obvious: So what's my word? What's the one word that sits in the background of my thoughts no matter where I am?
It took me a while to figure it out, but one day it finally hit me: improve.
If I had to pick a second one, it would be know -- but in most cases know is only there to make improve run more efficiently. (Efficient is also rattling around in there, but it's purpose in my life is really to serve improve as well.)
The real problem (if one could call it that) with improve as one's guiding principle is that it's a bit like playing wall. There's always something else to improve, and even improvements to make on the improvements. It's very safe in that the word will always be in motion, but ultimately disappointing in that it will never be fulfilled. I think I should accept applications for a new word. Improve can be retired to a grandmother cottage on the back lot of my mind, to while its days away figuring out better ways to weed a garden.
So, what's your word?