Platitudes

“What is all wisdom save a collection of platitudes? Take fifty of our current proverbial sayings—they are so trite, so threadbare, that we can hardly bring our lips to utter them. None the less they embody the concentrated experience of the race, and the man who orders his life according to their teaching cannot go far wrong. How easy that seems! Has any one ever done so? Never. Has any man ever attained to inner harmony by pondering the experience of others? Not since the world began! He must pass through the fire.” – Norman Douglas

I’m of the opinion that portions of our lives, certainly our manners and language, have coarsened over the past half century. If current culture could be viewed through the eyes of our ancestors, particularly those who worked so hard at gentrification, I suspect they would find current society to be crude and manner-less. In an article that appeared in Time magazine, Nick Gillespie pointed out that it’s difficult to challenge the idea that America has become far cruder over the last 30 years. He argued that the opening credits of shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians show more sex, violence, and, what my grandmother would call, street language, than could be found on all of prime-time TV in the three preceding decades. I agree with him, but attitudes regarding language, manners and sex are cyclical and observation has taught me that crudeness will run its coarse and a modified gentility will resurface somewhere down the road.

While I’m not thrilled with a lot of what I see and hear, I find no fault with the younger generation, who, despite lower standards of civility, are enormously kind, accepting and lacking in artifice. I do, however, smile when I remember an outburst in a Political Science class overseen by a fondly remembered professor. One among us was passionately arguing the merits of communism. He was allowed to rant, but when he finished the Dr. D said, “Mr. Abrams, you may think you’re a communist, but I’ll wager you’ll be a democrat in ten years and by the time your children are in high school you’ll be a card carrying member of the republican party.” Time colors perception and behavior, as well canned speech and the favored platitudes of a generation.

The problem with canned speech and platitudes is they obstruct thinking and turn us into automatons. All conversations start with a greeting. That can be a “How are you?” or “Whazzup?” Both are painfully inadequate because they’re not time specific and the addition of modifiers rarely helps. Worse still, the greeting may be perfunctory. The response to either form filters reality. “I’m fine,” or “Gucci(good)” doesn’t paint a true picture of well-being or fragility. The response is as perfunctory as the greeting. Platitudes are little more than canned responses that simplify social interaction.

Among the list of platitudes that pepper our language, I find the most annoying canned responses to be: time heals all wounds, it was meant to be, such is life, what’s done is done, better late than never, patience is a virtue, be careful what you wish for, money can’t buy happiness, and my personal favorite, forgive and forget. That last always seems to put the burden of guilt on the person who was wronged. So, what then is the value of such canned phrases as, “I’m sorry” and “Forgive me?”

“Sorry” is an elastic expression that covers transgressions large and small. It can be used as a civil stand-in for rude behavior or as an honest expression of remorse. Sometimes it’s meant, sometimes it’s not. That affects the value one places on it. While “sorry” makes the world a nicer, politer place, its use when trying to right greater wrongs may be of limited value. An apology has no value unless the behavior that caused it is changed and can be forgiven.

Forgiveness comes from a place of strength and it speaks more about the person who extends it than the person who has caused the hurt. It doesn’t mean the hurt has been forgotten. It has been survived. We all know that life can be tough and has hurtful patches. Rising above them shows growth and maturity. But most of the time “I forgive you” is as perfunctory as “I’m sorry” and we are merely being polite and using canned language to communicate with one another.

Those who have been truly hurt have problems with the platitude, “forgive and forget.” They may find forgiving to be the easier of the two exercises. To forget implies that the experience that caused pain has been endured but taught nothing. Pretending that something never happened will not make its effects go away and that pretense denigrates an often traumatic experience. Time blurs memory and causes the raw pain of bitter experience to fade, but it should not be forgotten and pushed to some dark recess of the brain. It had powerful lessons to teach and it’s best to store the memory in a safe spot where it will not be lost.

2 thoughts on “Platitudes

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  1. Mary, My favorite is “If I can’t fix it or influence it, I can’t worry about it.” I think that its a healthy if trite approach to issues around you that you just don’t have any control over… My wife worries about our neighbor’s new house being completed on time and I don’t. While I’m sympathetic with them, I can’t control or impact the situation. So, I just “Keep on Keeping on down the road of Life”. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

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