We tell people in the throes of adversity silly things in attempts to placate their angst. We also bask ourselves in a litany of clichés during stressful times to counter emotional suffering. We post them to social media, or tape them to our fridge next to that “Live, Love, Laugh” trope and the grocery list.
It’s not that we mean to be trite – it’s that we often don’t know what else to do or say to offer support.
Classic standby platitudes include the following:
- God will never give you more than you can handle.
God never actually said this. Just ask Moses or Job. But it sounds nice, while imparting just enough hope to accept that spilled $6 latte or another mass shooting.
- What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
Tons of stuff can make you weaker … just before killing you. Have you ever seen someone bleed out?
- Pain is weakness leaving the body.
What a cute little absurdity. Excrement, sweat, and urea are weaknesses leaving the body. Pain can stick around indefinitely.
- Opportunity often comes disguised as adversity.
Opportunity doesn’t think this far in advance. Maybe it’s just shy, or likes surprising us. Either way, opportunity and adversity are as discernible as love and hate, or Michael Jackson skin tones through the decades.
- The Serenity Prayer.
Maybe this one helps, I don’t know. I can never remember the words.
- We have nothing to fear by fear itself.
FDR married his fifth cousin … do his mantras have any credibility? Also, there are plenty of things to fear, like dating apps, light beer, or former child actors. His point is moot.
- God helps those who help themselves.
I fell for this one too. Stand back, mere mortal – God doesn’t need our help.
- In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.
I’m a rabid fan of Robert Frost, but his death in 1963 negates this proverbial gem.
There’s a reason canned, verbal peps don’t work: They’re simply not true. Can you think of a single instance of personal suffering where you recited anything similar, and felt a change in your emotions or mindset? We aren’t The Little Engine that Could.
When my grandmother, Hazel, my mom, and I were all diagnosed with cancers within the same year, I was emotionally spent and, honestly, pissed-off at the cosmos … or whoever made-up that “God will never give you more than you can handle” puff-slogan.
The topper of that time, however, was that from all the night-grinding of my teeth from stress, I had bone loss and gum recession in my lower jaw, requiring a $2,000 gum surgery. Human cadaver forearm skin was grafted to the inside of my lower gumline, while using growth factor from my own blood to lessen the tissue rejection. This prevented me from cursing aloud at life for wronging me, as I risked the piece of dead arm flying from my mouth.
No enemy is worse than bad advice. – Sophocles
I can assure you that there were no cute motivational quips that could fix all that ailed me that year. Yet, friends would dispense asinine “pick-me-ups” while I fake smiled over gritted teeth and gums that weren’t mine.
Some of their trivial well-wishes included, “Just put one foot in front of the other;” “Tomorrow is a new day;” or “It’ll get better!” (the last person wasn’t even trying). The advice my friends gave me was as useless as the “ueue” in queue.
I knew they meant well, but had no offerings beyond the preceding hollow citations. And, I can’t blame them. I have a friend whom recently lost his mom to Covid in an ICU. I too struggled to placate his suffering with the right spoken Band-Aid.
It’s not that we don’t want to assuage the angst that we or someone we care about is feeling – it’s that doing so is a skill so few of us are trained to do.
So, What Can You Do For Someone (or, Yourself) Who is Going Through a Tough Time?
In absence of helping a friend sponge-bathe their infirmed parent, or donating your own arm skin for their mouth, there are simple but surprisingly helpful things you can do.
1. If it’s you going through a difficult time, radically accept what is happening to you. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you have to agree with what’s happening or how you feel about it – but you accept it as it is, no matter how painful or inconvenient it is. C’est la vie. Whatever will be, will be. It is so, so it is. There is incredible freedom in merely accepting how things are.
2. Regularly check-in with yourself and your feelings. If you’re feeling irritable, for example, take tangible steps to lessen your angst. This might include taking regular long walks or working-out, watching a comedy, turning-off your phone and reading some Dave Barry or David Letterman, or doing some guided meditations from YouTube.
3. If it’s a friend hurting, simply ask them how they are doing. Then be present and listen. You don’t need to offer nuggets of life-altering advice. It’s actually best that you don’t. Just listen.
4. Ask how you can best support them during this trying time. If it’s you who is hurting, how can you be your own best advocate? Hint: regular sleep, healthy eating, and not self-isolating.
5. Be consistent. Don’t check-in once and fade to black. Check-in regularly, even if via text.
6. Lastly, avoid the trite prose fails we often default upon. And, the next time someone gives you useless advice, convince them that having another baby will save their relationship.