The Peddlers of Platitudes…..and the Sellers of Stereotypes

You know when someone talks to you and all their thoughts sound borrowed? Or when we accept certain phrases as truth and do not even examine them…..and those phrases masquerading as truth colors our perceptions and prevents us from seeing what is real? I list some of them below:

“Time is a great healer” (alternatively: “All things heal with time”)

“Big girls/boys don’t cry”

“The love of a good woman can reform…”

Consciously or unsconsciously, we have bought into these cliches and it has colored our perceptions. Sometimes these cliches help us categorize things and proceed with life. Sometimes they offer solace , perhaps even strength…..even if by a false sense of hope or courage.

But there are times when these very cliches need to be examined and gotten past, or we will face roadblocks in life and interpersonal relationships. Cliches keep us locked in patterns that are unproductive, and we remain stuck in places without knowing how to extricate ourselves from tight spots. Mental and relational issues are not given the weight they deserve, and our hearts and minds, and eventually bodies, will feel the wear.

******

Early last month, most of my town was flooded. A bridge collapsed, and some roads ended up being seriously eroded and requiring repairs. The town planners got to work, and once the rain stopped, went about cleaning up flooded areas, repairing bridges and busy thoroughfares, and making sure that traffic will flow smoothly in as less time as possible. Nobody waited around mouthing words like “time is a great healer” or “all things heal with time”.

In this case, it was understood that time in fact, is a great eroder. Continuing traffic on damaged (but still usable) roads will lead to more wear, perhaps more accidents, and more expensive repairs. And collapsed bridges needed to be fixed, or traffic from the bridge would spill over to surrounding smaller roads, leading to traffic snarls, commuter stress and more accidents.

When a person has a broken limb or deep cut, we seek medical attention immediately. Waiting around for time to heal this wound may lead to infection, and in severe cases gangrene or blood poisoning. Perhaps smaller cuts and scrapes will heal with time, but even for those we make sure we clean the wound and make sure it gets air. We do not pick at the wound while healing….and apply ointments if the skin gets tight and dry. Some care and action is taken, even if not much.

But when it comes to mental and relational wounds, we believe that time will heal the wound with no action from our side. When we experience a loss of a relationship through death, or emotional strains put on it, we believe things will heal in time. Grief from the loss is brushed under the carpet, and we try to replace the lost relationship with other relationships, or in the case of a death, by trying to focus our minds on something else and hope that the pain of the loss is not felt. Some people even steer clear of the person facing the loss, unable to face the person and mouthing – yes, the very same platitude: all things heal with time.

There are families where siblings do not speak normally to each other, or are not on speaking terms. Even if one extends a hand of friendship, for whatever reason, the gesture is not returned. The other person says they need time, and sometimes add that platitude – “time heals all wounds”.

Nope, it doesn’t. A person could feel isolated and get depressed, not knowing how to grieve a death. A fissure in a family or significant friendship can deepen with time, if the original issues are not dealt with and gotten past. A misunderstanding will never be repaired with time alone; both parties need to take efforts to examine what led to it, and honestly fix it. We all grow up with a history, and some relationships – such as those we have with parents, siblings, childhood friends, or spouse – can never be replaced. This is a loss felt forever, that shows up at unexpected times and places. We may think we do not need this person, but we do. And allowing time to pass without taking actions to fix what was broken will be like waiting for a heavily trafficked bridge, that is now broken, to repair itself given time. Except in this case, instead of the roads getting clogged, it is our arteries. It is pain that we hide and repress, and try to distract ourselves from….that causes a lot of stress-related illnesses. Worse, we carry this baggage with us to other friendships/relationships – and become guarded, suspicious, and snappy. The overall quality of life suffers.

Reminds me of a story from Tolstoy that I read as a child: “Little children wiser than men”. The gist of the story is this: two neighborhood children get into a fight, the parents of the respective children intervene and it ends up becoming a fight between the parents. The next morning, the children who fought the previous day are back to playing as friends again, while the parents’ neighborly relations are forever lost.

As children, we had the innocence and trust to get up, apologize and honestly try again. As children, we had the forgiveness to look past flaws, accept the proffered hand of friendship, and go forward to play more, and live in the moment. As children, we had the boldness to offer comfort to a person who is in pain, or intervene when two friends have a misunderstanding…….And as “mature” adults we somehow lose this ability to say sorry, to try again, to accept a hand of friendship or a kind gesture, to accept a genuine apology and allow a person to make it up. We forget that we are all fallible and imperfect. That we need each other to play, or life will be dull.

*******

“Big boys/girls don’t cry”

This is another of those platitudes that makes absolutely no sense. Yes, public decorum prevents us from displaying all emotions in public. But there are people who carry this to the extreme, equating lack of tears to strength. They do not seek comfort or support during a time of pain, and think strength is all about stoicism. Seeking comfort from another makes us vulnerable, and open to being hurt, and so we do not seek it. So in effect, we are afraid to be vulnerable…and clam up due to this fear. Lack of tears isn’t a symbol of strength after all. It is a symbol of a fear to connect – be it with another in the act of seeking comfort, or connecting with our own selves and allowing ourselves to experience our emotions, and lead authentic lives.

Nature has given us this wonderful mechanism to release stress….which we choose not to use. Some of us do not even cry in private. I remember being “The Stupid Stoic” when I lost a person dear to me, to death. I refused to cry, and went to work that day. There is a need to be strong in front of those who depend on us…..we tell ourselves that in order to do so we should not give into our feelings. Yet, in the process of repressing sad feelings we get to a point where we are are barely functional………. The sadness eats at our hearts, our minds, and when we prevent ourselves from expressing it, it turns inward and doesn’t allow us to concentrate. It destroys sleep, and turns functioning adults into irritable zombies. Steadfastly refusing to seek comfort in tears at the time, or in the arms of a caring friend (after all, I did live away from family who were in another continent), I didn’t feel very strong. I felt like a mess who somehow had to pretend to be normal, and who was failing miserably at that.

And one night, deep in the middle of the night, the tears came, and with it an inexplicable sense of relief. After weeks, I could breathe normally again. The sorrow was allowed to be experienced, to be released from the system. Such release made room to examine all that was lost, to mourn, to grieve, and get a grip over the loss. That was the day I understood that the only way to get away from grief is through it.

I know people who to this day, complain about breathing issues when they are stressed…and this breathing  difficulty  hasn’t had a medical reason attributed to it. I suspect at least some have long repressed feelings of loss, sadness, rejection, and abandonment. They may have immersed themselves into activities and stayed busy, to distract themselves from feeling and owning those “inappropriate” and hence uncomfortable feelings. Nature, and our bodies have a way of releasing strong emotions but in the process of civilizing ourselves we have turned away from our own natures. Feelings that have nowhere to go continue to erode our bodies…..and our lives and health are the poorer for it.

Big girls and boys who need to get on with lives and live true to themselves need to have the occasional cry – and find healing through tears. Ipods, social media and pets can only provide so much relief. We as a race need to find deeper connections with each other, even if it means occasionally being vulnerable.

To be continued…..

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