Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rethink Popular Sayings

Sunday, April 18, 2010

When someone is going through a tough time, or when talking to our children, we often offer advice in the form of common sayings:  Look on the bright side. God must have needed her more in heaven than we need her here. Every cloud has a silver lining. Life is short. It takes two to tango. Practice makes perfect. Though we mean well when we say them, we often use such sayings without even thinking much about their meaning or impact.

The trouble with this lack of thought is that it renders many such sayings useless or even harmful. They've become such clichés that they do little more than briefly disturb the airwaves -- unless they actually do damage. How can well-intended words harm anybody? By setting up unrealistic expectations, by glossing over a specific situation, or by ignoring the feelings of the person you say them to. Here's a closer look at few of the sayings I've sited above.

Look on the bright side. This saying is meant to help people focus less on the problem and more on hope and improvement. That's great...most of the time. But sometimes, before a person can look for the positive, happier possibilities, she needs to feel the sadness, anger or disappointment. She might first need somebody to listen so she can process the problem, which is an important part of moving forward. By tossing out this cliché, we might be ignoring what's actually going on for her right now, which can actually make it harder to move forward. Instead, ask questions about what happened and how she's feeling. Give her time to process events and feelings and be available, if you can, when she's ready to start looking on the bright side.

God must have needed him in heaven more than we need him here. When someone is grieving, it can be very hard to know what to say; we're afraid we'll make someone feel worse by saying the wrong thing. In some cultures and communities, grief is "supposed to" be expressed only briefly, if at all. Many of us don't like how we feel when somebody is unbearably sad, so we trot out clichés by way of comforting both of us. But the idea that God needs somebody in heaven can feel pretty irrelevant when your friend is in shock, horror and disbelief about his loved one's death. Offer your friend your caring presence, comfort and simple foods when he's grieving. If you're not sure what to say, silence is an excellent substitute.

Life is short. Intended to aid appreciation and endorse our choices, this saying is actually pretty negative. How about replacing it with something like this: Life is rich, so I choose to enjoy and appreciate it.

Practice makes perfect. A few years ago, I rewrote this saying to read "practice makes better" because the original form sets up unrealistic expectations. Of course, the intention behind "practice makes better" is to encourage effort and determination, which are admirable. However, it also gives the impression that if you try hard enough and are good enough and work, work, work, you can someday be perfect. For many, that's a scary prospect. We can be very good, we can become experts, but perfection can feel too huge to many, so they give up before they even start. Thinking of practice making us better keeps improvement within our grasp.

So, slow down and pay attention to yourself and others. Think about what you say before you say it, and you'll be of genuine help.


Anonymous said...

Well said Kate, I mean nobody is "perfect" and its progress not perfection anyway. I also agree with "look on the bright side" sometimes thats just not possible when one feels sad, hurt, dissapointed, angry, or frustrated. Thanks Kate, Love Kyla

Kate Thompson said...

Hi Kyla,
Thanks for your comments. I appreciate the feedback.
Hope things are good with you!