Have you ever felt like you were “pushed into” something? Perhaps you didn’t really want to go to that party, but you were made to go. You had other things that you wanted to do, but other people kept urging you to go and finally you did, but you were pushed into going. Sometimes we have felt tired or sick and didn’t want to go to work, but again we have pushed ourselves into going. We all know the feeling.
If someone is a very ambitious person and he gets things done we may also say that he has a lot of push. He may not have a very complimentary technique, but we know that he will make a lot of effort to get his way.
There are times when objects need to be pushed: a stalled car, a lawnmower or a stubborn mule are cases in point. But generally we don’t like to be “pushed around”, even in crowds or cramped conditions when we might expect it.
In most parts of the world the cities are extremely crowded. People have to force their way along a street, pushing themselves or their carts along. We have all seen pictures of pushing masses and it is possible to be just “carried along” by the great host of people. So, in some cases, we may not like it but we can be pushed along by some force or object greater than ourselves.
The word pull is used in similar ways: Have you ever felt like you were pulled into something? You become subject to a force that is greater than you. In Tok Pisin we hear “em i save pulim mi,” meaning that the person who acts is somehow enticed into an action against their own will.
Some people are said to have pull, they know how to “throw their weight around”. This does not necessarily mean that they are large people, only that they know how to manipulate or control others. In some cases they compel people to act in certain ways, to do what they want. They are considered to be important people because of both the push and the pull which they have.
Push and pull both imply that there is some force or energy which lies behind the action. Usually this is some other person and we are the objects of the force. The force behind the push and pull can be of many kinds, but they will all exert some kind of effort. We can, for example, “force someone’s hand” by making them act rather than sit and do nothing.
Have you ever seen someone who does not appear very happy, some one whom you would like to see smile? You can perhaps make them smile or laugh, but this would be a “forced smile,” not one that they actually intended or even enjoyed.
Sometimes, when someone has been promoted very rapidly, he or she can be said to have been “pushed up” through the company, firm or bureaucracy. If someone is easily distracted or not very compe tent as a player, that person is a “push over”.
The English language often likes to use prepositions like over, under, in, on, down, up, and so on and attach these to verbs like pull and push. When this is done there are many combinations which give very specialized meanings. Here are some that you probably have heard or used:
“He developed his muscles by doing pushups.” But not, “He became quite thin after doing one hundred pushdowns.”
“She was quite cold so she put on her pullover.” But not, “It was so hot in the room that she took off her pullunder.”
“When the police caught the speeding driver, he gave him a signal to pull over to the side of the road.” But not, “The driver was going so slowly that the police signaled him to pull under by the side of the road.”
“George knew that if he did not pull up his socks he would soon lose his position on the team.” But not, “George played so well that he was told that he could pull down his socks.”
By testing words like push and pull in combinations with prepositions like up and down we can develop a better feeling for when they should and can be used.
St. Paul tells us in the New Testament that we should try to build people up and not pull them down. In another place he told the people in Corinth that he had authority to build them up, not to tear them down. All of us have met people who tear others down, who like to pull them down, so that they are discredited in some way. Christians are told to build each other up, to help one another in practical ways. By doing so they forget about themselves and help others.
Push and pull are verbs which require some sort of action, like go and come. With go and come there is some particular location that the speaker or hearer has in mind. With push and pull there must be some object which serves as the goal of the action. We go to the park because it is a place we want to see, but we can’t push or pull it along the road because it is a location, not a physical object.
There are some other interesting uses of push and pull when they are used in a very unusual way. Did you ever have anyone tell you that they were “pulling your leg?” How long did it take you to realize that they meant that they were joking or kidding you about something? Why didn’t they “pull your arm,” or “push your leg?” There are ways to find out how expressions like “pull your leg” came about. But they are not really very important, except to the specialist who studies words and their histories. Sometimes very technical dictionaries supply this kind of information.
Words have a power all of their own because the people who use them intend them in certain ways. Usually we can easily understand what people mean, so that when Jesus asked if it was permissible to pull an ox out of a well on the Sabbath, we don’t have to speculate about peculiar or odd meanings that he might have intended. But when he said that he would pull down strong holds we have to think a little longer.
In looking at the power of the words push and pull we have seen how there is a force behind them as well. Like the words themselves the force or action can be for the good of people or for their harm. It is up to us to decide when to use such words and how to use them. We don’t need to claim that the devil “made us say them” when words that we speak hurt other people.