I love when friends invent pithy quotes.
Yesterday, my friend Karen asked if I knew of any quotes along the lines of the above, which has been running through her head recently.
“To me it means when times are good and you’re in your rhythm and conquering the world (or just fairly happy) it’s easy to be philosophical about how to get thru the bad times,” she wrote.
“Telling yourself you can’t control everything is easy when life’s perkin’ along. But when it all gets complicated and shit’s goin’ wrong it’s hard to really ‘count your blessings’ or believe that ‘better times (probably) lie ahead.’”
Oh yeah. It’s true. When stuff’s hittin’ the fan, keeping a level head is really hard, no matter how much you “know” when everything is just swell.
So what then? Are you destined to just spiral down until… what? You bottom out? Your life’s in shambles around you? You take to your bed forever?
When I’m in a place so bad that I forget all the important things I know about living well, I sometimes call my former therapist for a little tune-up. Otherwise, I just spin my wheels until I’m deep in a rut. A good head shrinking helps me regain traction so I can move forward, out of the mire.
But, facile as this sounds, I’ve also found that a good pithy quote can help me hang on when life is sucky. I sometimes cling to aphorisms like a lifeline, repeat them like a mantra.
I guess the trick is grabbing onto pithy quotes that really speak to me. “Count your blessings” doesn’t work for me. I know that’s sacrilege, but thinking about the good things in my life has never solved anything for me. I can be aware of good things and still be all wadded up about the not-so-good. Good and bad are not mutually exclusive and I’m not easily distracted from life’s dark side. That’s just me.
But some pithy mantras do help me ride out hard times. For example:
This too shall pass.…
These are the words of a New York City cab driver, spoken to my parents when they were on the way to the morgue to face the unimaginable task of identifying their youngest son, my kid brother, who died unexpectedly.
The driver, too, had lost a child, and these words are perhaps the wisest I’ve ever heard for the recently bereaved.
I’ve lost a brother, both parents, and, during the most horrific years of the AIDS epidemic, several close friends. This cab driver’s words were comforting to me, and they are the words I use when expressing sympathy to others.
I think of them now because in response to my recent post, Face Reality, Life Can Be Random, a reader commented that the bland aphorism, “Everything happens for a reason” is particularly unhelpful in a time of bereavement.
Oh heavens, yes. Even if it were true that everything happens for a reason, which it’s not, when you’re in the dark belly of grief, no reason in the world can provide comfort. There’s even something a little callous about this attempt to justify loss, pain, and grief.
This observation got me thinking about good and bad things you can say when someone is grieving.
I don’t know who said this first, but lots of people say it now and it annoys me every time I hear it.
I’m not a fan of magical thinking and that’s what this is—some sort of happy-voodoo, abracadabra, unicorns and rainbows, fairy dust and angels belief in preordination.
Of course, it’s a comforting belief. I get that. It makes the world feel less random, makes order of what might seem like chaos at the time.
But it’s not true. A lot of stuff happens for purely random reasons. And even religion and an omnipotent God can’t account for everything—that’s the whole premise behind the classic book of comfort, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Sure, some things happen for a reason, but that reason is in the past or present, not the future. And it’s not always a good reason. You drink, you drive, you wrap your car around a pole or end up in an addled-looking mug shot. It happened for a reason—you were drinking and driving—but it didn’t happen as a way to make you stop drinking and driving. It happened because you were doing something dumb.
Or you skip a class so often that you end up failing. Maybe the F inspires you to find another major because you realize that this subject bores you silly. That’s good. But you didn’t fail the class because the stars were saying you needed to change majors. You failed because you didn’t go to class.
This quote has it backwards. It’s not that everything happens for a reason. It’s that the best we can do when things happen is find a reason or a way to be OK with them. Use them to move forward. Figure out if there’s something to learn from them and take the lesson to heart. Put it into action.
Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. But if we live consciously, we can find reasons to make the best of everything that happens.
Image of magic show is available from Shutterstock.
Well pooh-pooh, la-di-da, and phooey on this quote, which shouldn’t even be allowed on a psychology website. Because really, what is psychology if not discussing people? People are endlessly fascinating, they are responsible for ideas and events, and you couldn’t figure them out in a lifetime of study. What’s so small about discussing people?
What about Freud? Didja ever think about him, Eleanor? He couldn’t have gotten to all his ideas if he hadn’t first thought about and discussed people.
And can you even separate ideas from events and people? Aren’t the three all completely intertwined in this big glorious mess that is life? Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, they are the product of people’s minds. To fully understand them, you have to understand where they come from. And events are the result of behavior. People again.
Is this true? I need to know.
I’ve always believed that talking things out is the right thing to do, but I am doubting, doubting, doubting these days. And here’s this dame (a novelist and travel writer) telling me my belief is delusional.
But I need explanations. Is nothing made better by talking, or are some things made better and some worse? And which are made worse and which better? And are we talking about talking between affected parties, or talking to someone else?
Research is finding that, contrary to popular assumption, insisting people talk about trauma immediately after it occurs actually increases the risk of PTSD.
But what about run-of-the-mill problems? Fights with friends? Marital difficulties? Problems at work? Sometimes it seems like venting to friends just makes a problem feel worse and worse. Like talking after a trauma, venting sometimes makes the problem calcify in my brain, as I build arguments and build arguments and build arguments and justify and justify and justify until I have walled myself into the problem with what feels like no way out.
Talking about things feels good to me. It lets a breath of fresh air into my rumination, and sometimes I can talk my way to insight. Sometimes the person I’m talking to has useful things to say. Sometimes just venting releases enough pressure to allow a problem to dissipate.
But other times, my feels-good talking is the other person’s feels-bad talking, and what started as my problem then turns into the other person’s problem. Or the talking itself creates its own new problem. And then I don’t know if I should talk about that problem, the talking problem, or just shut up for once.
You see my problem. What’s the answer? Can we talk about it?
Photo of man with tape over mouth available from Shutterstock.
How are you at taking criticism?
I’ve gotten pretty good at it. If you’re going to put yourself in the public eye, you have to take your lumps.
I usually let rotten tomatoes land where they will. Readers often have unpleasant things to say to those of us with the audacity to put our thoughts in print. I’ve been called names, been accused of unspeakable acts, had my fitness for my job questioned. I hardly even consider that kind of thing criticism. Most of the time, it’s just people flapping their gums. I can imagine their red-faced sputtering and I hope they can imagine my eyes rolling. Those rotten tomatoes miss me by a mile.
(I’ve also noticed that when someone agrees with something I’ve written, it’s because the idea is good and great minds think alike. When someone disagrees, it’s because, obviously, I’m an idiot.)
The devil is in the details.
“So which is it?” a friend asked, peevishness implied in her email.
I’m not going to try and trace the origins of these quotes. The former is usually attributed to architect Mies van der Rohe, but some people claim it was around long before he got around to it. “The devil is in the details” may or may not have been a spinoff from the God quote.
The more I think about these two quotes, the less contradictory they seem. After all God and Lucifer are two sides of a spiritual coin. Good and evil, black and white, dark and light, Yin and Yang (though I make no judgment calls on black, white, dark, light, Yin, or Yang).
If “God” is transcendence, then God is in the details. It’s the details that elevate whatever you do from good to great.
When I first heard this aphorism a couple of decades ago, it hit me so profoundly that I asked my mother to work it up in a cross-stitch for me, which has hung in my house ever since.
I was going through a particularly hard time back then and was angry about some things that had and hadn’t happened. These words helped me to relax and stop fighting what was because it wasn’t what I wanted. It’s a sort of mindfulness quote. The words force you out of your head, with all its dreams and ambitions, and into the real world with all its disappointments and surprises. As Doris Day said, que sera sera.
I still recite the words to myself every time I find myself chafing from what is and yearning for what is not.
But sometimes – and I’m sorry John, you know I love you forever – this quote pisses me off.