What a Cliché! Four Platitudes That Do More Harm Than Good.

Definitions: Platitude & Cliché

Before I launch in to the mother of all rants, let’s get some definitions straight:

A Cliché is “An expression, idea, or element of an artistic work that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” —Wikipedia

A Platitude is “A trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, often used as a thought-terminating cliché, aimed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease. Platitudes have been criticised as giving a false impression of wisdom, making it easy to accept falsehoods.” —Wikipedia

Platitude #1: Everything happens for a reason

If ‘everything happens for a reason’, that means it’s possible to find meaning from suffering. This platitude is designed to instil faith, in God having a plan, or belief, that the universe is transmitting an important message.

We have a tendency to conclude that everything happens for a reason when something good comes out of something bad — especially in the face of tragedy. Sometimes it is by chance, and other times it is by our sheer determination to turn things around. In either scenario, it all made sense in the end.

The idea that ‘everything happens for a reason’ is massively therapeutic for many people, but equally, it is downright frustrating advice for those who don’t subscribe to this philosophy. It is important to be careful ascribing this perspective to someone else’s situation, because it might be easier for them to accept that the bad thing happened if the explanation is that there is no reason for it whatsoever.

Platitude #2: Good things come to those who wait

This internet meme nicely summarises the hypocrisy behind the platitude ‘good things come to those who wait’. The truth is, both statements can be true, it isn’t a case of either or. In some circumstances, being patient is a virtue, but in others, it is better to seize the moment and make haste — thus time is of the essence.

To preach ‘good things come to those who wait’ as a blanket statement is akin to promoting a laissez-faire philosophy to living your life. It is not wrong, it just isn’t always true. One must be especially cautious in doling this out as advice to young or impressionable minds, who might misinterpret it to mean that if they act impatiently then good things won’t happen to them. Contrary to popular belief, being impatient has value in certain situations, especially in the context of challenging the status quo and rousing change for the better. Negative emotions such as impatience, anger, fear, and disgust all have functional value so long as it is not a pathological concern.

Used wrongly, this platitude is offered as inappropriate advice for tackling a problem, or a wrong conclusion drawn about a past event (luck post-rationalised as patience). In it’s worst form, it is adopted as a dangerous do-nothing mantra, that flies in the face of the spirit of action and experimentation. In most cases, it is well and truly redundant to say this to someone, and is best applied when observing a very precise situation where illogical, perennial impatience has been displayed.

Platitude #3: Times heals all wounds

Whether you are thinking this to yourself or saying it to someone else, this platitude is problematic. The passage of time is something that we as humans all experience but the process of healing wounds is one that requires active effort, time is simply a byproduct of that effort. Sure, if you fall on the sidewalk and graze your knee, time will heal this wound. Imagine it was not sterilised and bandaged, got infected by the life-threatening bacteria tetanus…woops. Why not just say, treated properly, that should take 2 weeks to heal. It’s cringe-worthy imagining a child parroting this false wisdom when trying to deal with something slightly more complex than a graze!

It is perhaps most futile to say ‘time heals all wounds’ to someone that is suffering immense grief, there is no actual advice or empathy being transmitted apart from telling the person to do nothing, sit back, feel the pain, and wait for time to pass. Even worse perhaps – if the sufferer is in a vulnerable state and desperate for advice, they might see this as permission to avoid dealing with their problems and emotions, assuming that the hard feelings that they are experiencing will miraculously disappear over time. Then, the inevitable passage of time rages on, the sufferer carries on with their life choosing to blank their pain rather than address it, eventually they become numb and forgot. This may lead to repressed thoughts and feelings, and it is a very powerful defence mechanism, which unfortunately, often comes back to haunt people later in life. The moral of the story? Most wounds in life are best treated at the time that they actually happened.

Platitude #4: Every cloud has a silver lining

…Except for this mushroom cloud caused by a nuclear test at Christmas Island in 1962. This counts as a real cloud, right? Yeah, cause this cloud is the picture of war, and war creates chaos, destruction, and immense suffering. Oh wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a world where we’re all pacifists and everyone got along? But at this point in the lifespan of humanity, the world is a complicated and messy place, and that is all we realistically know of, so far. See, the idea that every cloud has a silver lining is just very optimistic, it means that it’s always possible to find a positive from a negative, and it is probably, annoyingly true in a whole range of normal, everyday situations we face in life. However, the irritating thing about this platitude is that is too nice to think this way all the time, because the world is an unfair place, and some people never see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s exactly the kind of thing that people with first world problems would probably say. Okay, so it’s not the worst piece advice in the world to hear from someone that cares about you… it’s just not always true. And it’s most definitely overused, thus going in the hall of fame of platitudes.