Off-Topic: I hate Platitudes

The other day I was witness to an all too familiar situation at work: a co-worker of mine just went through a personal loss that came with some added complications, the kind of crap that’s hard to listen to and therefore harder to experience. Sometimes life makes no sense. Quite often in fact, things are just one major parade of suck and as a bystander, all you can or should do is be there and lend and ear.

Of course that never stops someone piping up with old age wisdom; “it happens for a reason”, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, “time heals all wounds” and any misbegotten, infuriating variations thereof. There’s a word in my native German tongue for these kinds of worn-out platitudes: “worthülsen”, literally “word husks”. Empty shells of words that touch nothing.

Platitude

It’s not just that phrases like these are often ill-timed but they’re trivializing in a way that may deeply offend the person affected. They’re lies too: it’s evidently untrue that all psychological (or physical) wounds heal or that every experience ends up making you “stronger”. As for someone in the process of mourning, dealing with trauma or some other life-altering struggle, usually the last thing they need to hear is that shitty things make them stronger or have a reason – which suggests, intentionally or not, that this is somehow an experience worth having or being thankful for.

No, it fucking ain’t! If someone lost a limb in an accident or watched a loved one fade away slowly under excruciating pain, there’s is no deep meaning in that experience. “Oh I survived this shit, yay?” – Come on. There may be more indirect, less horrible side-effects way, way further down the road but that is a different matter entirely. People suffering are not “chosen” by anyone, there’s no benevolent masterplan – certainly none I would willingly subscribe to. Tangentially, I have no problem with belief in a higher power but spare me rationalizing other people’s tragedies because god’s will. Spare me also all these religiously motivated platitudes that even the most secular society can’t seem to shake completely in everyday language:

  • ora et labora (work ethics…work work peon)
  • turn the other cheek
  • be good in this life…erm

/side-rant: Only the most evil of masterminds could come up with this stuff in order to maintain power over the gullible. Work and pray all day – so there is no time or energy left to form independent thought or organize gatherings (beware idleness, sloth etc.). Turn the other cheek – don’t retaliate against anyone, including those who would fool, exploit and harm you and yours (don’t lie to them either…you’re not supposed to lie to anyone, no idea why not). Wait for no rewards in this life. Seriously? Tyrant for dummies 101. /close side-rant

The thing is – I get the rationalizing part, I do! I actually believe it’s one of our greater cognitive abilities as human beings, that we can look for a positive in anything, in retrospective. If you can get to that point for yourself after a long journey, more power to you! That doesn’t mean you couldn’t have done without that horrible event in the first place.

I suspect that as a society, we’re so fearful of the darker sides of life, there’s almost an unconscious reflex to turn the light on. Yet pain, sadness and anger have their time and place and can’t be rushed. In fact, it would make so many things easier if we learned to share painful moments more naturally, in an environment that feels no need to rush difficult emotions or put a label on them.

If you’re looking to help someone, the first step is to respect pain. Respect it as part of everyone’s life and someone’s personal journey. Don’t feel awkward or embarrassed in the face of pain, don’t feel the urge to gloss it over with platitudes. Don’t think all pain needs to be cheered up (by you). Resist your inner fairy godmother.

Instead, just be there. May be the other person will find closure further down the line. May be that they don’t. Whatever happens, they are entitled to feel whatever it is they’re feeling, no matter how hopeless it may seem to you or how glum. Sometimes just being there and letting someone feel they are not alone in this world, is the greatest kindness you can do for them. And listening takes very few words at all.

11 comments

  1. Yes, platitudes don’t help. But, I think that they often come from a good place. They’re a socially recognized way of saying, “I see your pain and I wish I could do something to help, but I don’t know how.” When people say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” they aren’t saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll be stronger in the end.” it’s a clumsy way of saying, “take this grief and become a stronger person because of your understanding.” But, saying it in such a direct way, at least in American culture, would seem patronizing.

    I also think you misunderstand the statement “turn the other cheek”. It’s not saying that you shouldn’t be wary of people or willingly let others take advantage of you, rather than when you are set upon by unfair circumstances you shouldn’t lash out in blind rage. Instead, you should forgive those who transgress against you, a pretty fundamental concept in Christian theology (which, sadly, doesn’t get a lot of attention by those who loudly proclaim their spirituality). Yeah, you could see this as “let others in power walk over you”, but I think the real lesson is, to use another phrase, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

    1. Yes, platitudes also come from a good place if not a clumsy one. Yet they often contain a message about the sender him/herself: they communicate discomfort or rush, basically the person feels the need to change the situation because they wish it was over already. They can only deal with so much grief from another person. While that is understandable and human, it’s self-serving and therefore not a good place to come from imho. Platitudes are changing the subject when its not for you to change it.

      I had to learn this the hard way myself, I am a very pep-talky person at times that wants others to have a good time. I have drastically changed this behaviour however and identified the more selfish parts within. If a situation is very painful and difficult for me to witness, I don’t say “cheer up, tomorrow is another day” anymore, rather I will say “I am sorry you have to go through this” and “I am here for you if you need me”.

      1. I disagree that it’s necessarily self-serving. There’s a shift from sympathy to empathy that some people go through. Part of it is a maturation process; once you’ve experienced heart-wrenching loss it becomes harder to give a simple answer to the pain someone else is experiencing. But not everyone is capable of empathy, so sometimes sympathy is the best people can offer even if it doesn’t seem as useful as real empathy.

  2. Very good post.
    /adding-rant: Platitudes often come from people who also demonstrate what I call ‘hypocritical altruism’ and make others’ problems all about themselves. They offer ‘help’ no one has asked for at their terms that makes THEM feel better and are upset if you refuse it (politely). And if you don’t keep them posted about the newest developments with all painful details, they are ‘worried’ and keep nagging you but never listen.

    1. Indeed, this is pretty much what I just wrote in my earlier comment. :) I don’t want to dismiss all pep-talk but there are definitely finer nuances there and timing is incredibly important. If you’re not close enough to someone or their situation to judge timing, I would recommend not to try steer the action. And – thanks!

  3. This was a really good thoughtful post! I often had trouble finding the right words to offer people in these situations without falling back on platitudes and religious sentiment. Now I focus on the present, or offering tangible help like “I hope having your family around is a comfort for you now” or “I’d like to bring you lunch tomorrow if you need it.” Loss is hard enough without clouds of empty words.

    1. Thanks Grace! And indeed, living in the moment and being mindful of ‘right now’ is something I aspire to do better every day.

  4. I hate it 2!! As i loathe “inspirational quotes” too with a passion. So utterly and deeply disturbing and without taste. I block persons who soils my feed with such garbage
    Love the rant! :0)

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