The idea for yesterday’s blog post – “Why Christian Cliches Don’t Work” – came to me over the weekend while I was reading Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. The metaphor he uses for oft-repeated phrases absolutely clicked with me:
Imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads. The handle is … a pithy statement that seems, on the face of it, to stand so much more. The suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from struggle.
Too often, we grab the handle and–without realizing it–walk off without the suitcase. What’s more, we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.
Once you’re aware of the suitcase/handle problem, you’ll see it everywhere. People glom onto words…that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning. … When someone comes up with a phrase that sticks, it becomes a meme, which migrates around even as it disconnects from its original meaning. (Creativity, Inc., pg. 79-80)
Clichés are pat phrases that have gotten separated from their original contexts. Clichés can hurt because we humans are automatic meaning-makers.
We hear very specific messages from clichés.
Intentional or accidental.
Loud and clear.
When We Give the Handle Without the Suitcase
I asked my best Bravery Buddies, “When cliches hurt, why do they hurt? What’s the subtext you hear, intended or not, when someone uses a cliche?”
Here’s what they said:
- They don’t want to actually hear you out or sit with you, they just want to hand you a bandaid and send you on your way.
- Because you’re looking for someone to care, to dig beneath the appearance to what the real issue is, and a cliche reduces you to a cliche, too.
- It can feel like the speaker has just checked off their box, instead of really listening and caring.
- I sometimes hear, “I don’t really care all that much.” Or “You are making me too uncomfortable.” Or “I don’t have answers and I need to have answers.”
- Subtext of “You just have to have faith”: My faith is weak and not big enough.
- “I don’t care enough about you to engage in the situation, but I want to have the appearance of caring. So I’m going to say something to make myself feel good, or appear better in the eyes of others who are watching.”
- I hear that I’m not good enough. They really don’t care. They are not recognizing that I am a person and especially a person that has doubts and fears. I want to hear that you can relate and that you recognize the struggle I’m having.
- I think where cliche usage is hurtful is when it’s being used to dismiss someone’s real struggle or as a tool to say, “just get over it already,” rather than being willing to participate in real engagement.
- I think the biggest problem with cliches is that they all boil down to assumptions and judgments we’re making about others, or that we feel are being made about us.
- The words seem to roll off the tongue without any thought…pat answers ready to go. It feels like the person isn’t really listening to the pain or the fear. It feels like I’m not really being heard.
- A lot of the cliches seem like a judgment on my faith, on my trusting God.
- Subtext of “It’s all God’s anyway”: You are selfish for wanting to have goals or a goal that includes anything material.
- It’s not authentic. It’s like handing a bandaid to a person who is bleeding to death.
- “You’re doing something wrong if you think, feel, act this way.”
- Subtext of “I’ll pray for you”: You really need prayer. (I actually love being prayed for but it depends on who is praying and why they are praying!)
- [My husband comes from a different religious tradition], so when Christian remarks are made, it leaves him out of the conversation. It means I have to explain things now and beleaguer the conversation, or have a discussion later when he has already missed the relevance.
- Sometimes people use cliches rather than just telling the truth. When I would go to my former pastor with a suggestion, complaint, or anything else he didn’t really want to hear or respond to, he would give me a cliche answer about God’s will, rather than just saying, “No, I don’t like the idea,” or “I hear your complaint, but I’m not going to do anything about it.”
- Cliches are a easy way out of an inconvenient opportunity to actually be there for someone else.
- It’s a brush off: “I don’t have time or you don’t matter enough for me to put thought into my words.”
- I’m crazy, psycho, a lunatic for thinking, feeling, acting this way.
The Problem of Meaning Well
This list is hard to read.
As I typed, I kept thinking, “That’s not what I mean!” and “You don’t understand!” and “But I don’t know how to…!” and “Nobody ever taught me how to…” and “I’m just going to go live in a cave.”
One Bravery Buddy expressed compassion for platitude-pushers:
I can see what everyone is saying about how the conversation or relationship isn’t deep enough so we feel hurt by being “brushed off” with a cliché.
However I also feel like people use clichés in order to be able to have something to say if they don’t know what else to say.
After the loss of a loved one, “Time will heal your wounds” may not be the best thing to say, but they may not be able to say anything else. They just don’t have the words to express how they feel.
As a recovering platitude-pusher myself, I relate. I mean well, I really do.
I’ve also discovered, the hard way, an important truth:
Good intentions offer no protection from bad results.
Tomorrow, we’ll explore “What to Say Instead of a Christian Cliche.” Today, I’ll close with this poignant observation by my friend Pam Richards Watts:
Clichés bulldoze into the sacred space of someone else’s pain. True compassion waits to be invited in.