There are certain sayings I hate. Many of them are affirmations. Others are platitudes. Some are just nonsense.
Affirmations, for example. The one in the picture, for example, is provably untrue. There’s a lot in my average day that I don’t choose – whether I oversleep, whether that package from Amazon arrives when I need it to, whether I’ll trip over my cat and break my arm. There are some who say that I can choose how I feel about any of that, but I don’t believe it. Human beings are wired to feel annoyed when they trip over the cat and in pain when they break their arm. Right after that, they may choose to forgive the cat or feel lucky that they didn’t break both arms, but feelings, at the moment they happen, are not chosen. We may be able to choose how we react afterward and what we do about it, but even that is iffy.
Or take the expression “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” There are lots of things that don’t kill me: ice cream, paintings, spatulas. None of them will make me stronger.
And if you tell me (as I’m sure you will) that the saying really means that adverse events that don’t kill me will make me stronger, I have to disagree. Think about someone who is fortunate enough to survive a train wreck. Is he stronger? No. More likely he is considerably weaker, owing to assorted broken bones and ruptured internal organs.
Ah, you say, but he is spiritually stronger, thankful that he survived. Maybe not. Not all people with catastrophic injuries are content with their fate. Some are even bitter and resentful. But we don’t like to think about those cases, so we say something that makes us feel better, even if it bears absolutely no relation to what the person it happened to actually feels.
I feel the same way about “Everything happens for a reason.” One day I heard about a news helicopter that crashed, killing everyone on board. Someone contended that it happened for a reason. “Sure,” I said. “The mechanic failed to tighten the thingamabob on the rotor. Or the pilot had the shakes. Or the passenger distracted the pilot. Of course, there was a reason.”
“That’s not what I meant,” my friend replied. I knew what she did mean – that there was a reason unknown to us and ultimately unknowable. That the passenger was secretly a child molester and now would never molest another child. That the pilot’s wife was about to poison him and this death saved him from a worse one. That if the helicopter hadn’t crashed when and where it did, an innocent child on the ground would have been squashed by it. Something like that. Cosmic justice prevailed.
In all these excuses, blame is never involved. Neither is chance. (The part on the rotor just failed. No one is to blame.) It’s too frightening to think that the actions of another person, our own actions, or the randomness of the universe is “responsible” for a tragedy. So we say there must be a reason, but we can’t – or aren’t able to – know it.
This is a lot like what is meant when someone says, “It was all part of God’s plan.” If you can’t pin the blame on a single person and you’re not willing to admit it “just happened that way,” there’s always God. If I were God (and thank God I’m not), I would be more than a little miffed at being held responsible for all these accidents, not to mention the plagues and disasters that are considered “acts of God.” (Did God send the tornado that destroyed my house because I’m sinful? We’re all sinners, but not all of us get tornados.)
To me, the worst saying is, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” To begin with, it pins the blame on God for all the things that go wrong in our lives. And ultimately, it simply isn’t true. Plenty of people can’t handle the things that happen in their lives. Those with serious mental illness, for example, sometimes can handle it, but sometimes they can’t – for example, a woman who drowns her children obviously can’t handle post-partum depression. The mass shooter can’t handle the stress, hatred, fear, or disappointment in his life. (Not to mention that I don’t believe God hands out these trials.)
That’s when talk of God’s plan gives way to the workings of Satan, or abstract Evil in general. We call people who do things that seem inexplicable to us “monsters.” This is another easy saying that simply isn’t so. Whatever motivated such heinous acts, the people who committed them are still human beings. Making them “The Other” – a monster, a minion of Satan, an animal – is more comfortable, because it negates the fact that human people (and that includes all of us) have the potential to do cruel things. That most of us don’t doesn’t negate the fact that we share a species with those who do.
And then there’s death. I won’t argue with the saying “At least he’s in a better place,” because my father’s death was excruciatingly painful and long, and release from that surely was better than continuing in it. But then there’s “It was his time.” Again, this assumes that God has a plan that’s so detailed that He has appointed a time for each of us to die. Or Fate has, if you prefer. Someone or something, anyway, that controls the minutiae of our lives so completely that every instant of it is out of our hands.
If any of those ideas bring you comfort, good. But they make me more than a little uncomfortable.