Taking comfort in platitudes

Currently, a friend of mine’s husband is going through a medical emergency. As he is battling, I am part of a texting conversation that includes updates from my friend’s mom. Now, aside from, obviously, being very concerned about my friend’s husband’s situation, which I will not dwell on here because I do not think that is fruitful, I am finding it interesting seeing how people react to a grave situation. We have all seen it before, all over facebook, emails, and other sources of communication: discussion of prayers, thoughts and hopes, and, so often, platitudes.

Oh, how I haaaaaaaate platitudes. (And I see I am not the only one). I guess I hate them primarily because they divert our attention away from reality, and give a false sense of comfort through the appearance of truth (because things become true simply by virtue of being repeated over and over, right?). They are born of mental laziness. They reveal an unwillingness to truly trudge through a problem and embrace its complexity, opting instead for a fatalistic relinquishing of control over our own lives. This is why, when people respond to our own misfortunes with platitudes, we sense that they don’t really care, though they are specifically trying to communicate that they do. Honestly though, it’s the mental laziness and fatalism that I hate more than anything, because the use of platitudes SHUTS DOWN AVENUES OF COMMUNICATION. They encourage us to stop wrestling with life’s problems, to give up control over how we solve them. They allow us to seek refuge in that which is comfortable, rather than that which is true. They presume to present universal answers, when in fact real solutions are always rooted in context.

So please, next time: let’s all just shut up with the platitudes.

Diagnosis

The first half of this year has been really strange for me. I started with an extreme boost of motivation and energy, but at some point I took a sudden dive into what, I see now, is a deep depression. I know, vaguely, that this is a pattern that I have repeated often through my adult life, but the blogging (here and elsewhere) that I’ve resumed this year has given me access to a new analytical tool; in my previous “life” as a LiveJournaler more than 10 years ago, I had the words, but not the perspective of time, but now that I have both, I am beginning to understand myself in new terms. The term, specifically, is Bipolar II disorder.

What I want to talk about today is not myself, but the concept of diagnosis. You see, I haven’t yet spoken to a professional; I have identified myself as having this disorder only through self-diagnosis. I know, I know, that is no kind of diagnosis at all.* In a later entry, I will discuss specifically why I feel this diagnosis is apt, but first I want to talk about why a label is important to me. I do not want a label to excuse myself. I absolutely do not want a label in order to gain access to any sort of “benefits.” I do not want a label to define me, or limit me. What I want is a label that will liberate me and provide me with an analytical lens to help me deconstruct and construct myself.

People often lose sight of what labels are for, I think. People naturally want to use them to bind: to ensnare, capture, and preserve, because people naturally do not like change. I think we often would prefer to be the only free agents in an otherwise stagnant world (or at least a world that does not change except at our behest). We wield labels like lassos and cages, and in this way they are dangerous. Labels under the banner of Science can be doubly dangerous, because, societally, we have a fear and respect for Science that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what scientific inquiry does. (And even if we know this, cognitively, the social capital granted by the badge of Science is kind of inescapable. We can know that, just because something is based on science, we shouldn’t consume it uncritically, but for lack of time and interest, we often do anyway.) Scientific inquiry is descriptive and investigative, rather than proscriptive; because of this, scientific findings are never complete, and they are always the servant of reality. As in Biology, Chemistry, Anthropology, and all the “-ologies,” science provides tools for inquiry. Scientific findings are like a network of scaffolding that allows us to look at our subject from new, and increasingly fruitful, perspectives, but they can never, ever, constrain their subjects.**

And so, clinical psychology and psychiatry. Whatever label I be given or not given, I am the living subject. I will not be bound by symptoms: I do not want to edit my personal history so as to fit a prescribed set of symptoms; I want the list of symptoms to be better understood because of me, my behavior (and others like me). I believe that my behaviors exhibit the discovered symptoms of Bipolar II, but I am not married to that specific diagnosis; while the understanding of the disorder itself will continue to change as more is learned, I will continue to be myself. Perhaps the label will be merged with another label in a few years, or maybe this one label will get divided into several distinct diagnoses. But so far, this label has helped me understand a part of my behavior that I had not previously recognized as pathological and potentially destructive. I think that with this new understanding, I can better control the behavior, and, I hope, channel it productively (or at least mitigate its destructive capacity).

 

*And yes, I do plan to speak to a therapist. For the second time in my life. I have a lot of trouble speaking about myself; I start to feel really silly. Even writing about myself is hard, because I can’t shake the feeling that I’m taking myself too seriously.

** Linguistics is the study of living language, where the natural manifestations of human expression are complex, ever-changing, and biologically-based; the science of linguistics seeks to understand natural language by describing and analyzing these manifestations, but linguists must always be behind the reality of language use. Rhetoric is the study of written and oral communication, but the subject of this study, the methods we choose to communicate, pre-exist Aristotle or even the Sophists; like language itself, rhetoric is also a naturally-occurring phenomenon of human communication. The language sciences present a particularly interesting scenario because we are all native, “expert” users of our first languages, and yet we are taught about our language through the filter of scientific terminology and classification (rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, spelling, definitions, etc.). While we are all instinctively and intuitively experts of our native languages, those of us who excel at accessing it through the technology of writing, for example, receive a great amount of cultural credit; this illustrates my point, on a basic level, of our tendency to respect “science” over the living subjects of scientific study. And yet the reality is that rules of written language, definitions, etc., are always changing based on use. Since the invention of the printing press provided the means and the incentive to (give in to our natural love to) codify language, this evolution has slowed, but it has in no way stopped, and until English becomes a dead language, it will continue to evolve based on use.

“Kiddie” gloves

So we’re watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and one of the characters says something to the effect of, “Things are going to get tougher from here on out; no more kiddie gloves,” and it hits me: some writer out there is a fucking idiot. Whoever wrote that line, please answer me, WTF DO YOU THINK A “KIDDIE” GLOVE IS? HMMM?? Do you think there’s some special kind of glove worn by children? Have you ever heard of that? Is that logical? Ughhh for some reason stuff like this really bugs me, along the lines of “It’s a doggy dog world” and “For all intensive purposes:” malapropisms, though minor internet research says this might be an “eggcorn.” Either way, I find it unacceptable in published content.

The thing that irks me, to be clear, is not that someone might not know the origin or actual meaning of the phrase “kid gloves” (after all, my husband sheepishly informed me that he did not realize “kid gloves” was not a reference to children’s hand-wear). (For those not in the know, “kid gloves” are gloves made from the skin of baby goats and which were generally soft and thin and used in work requiring a delicate touch, as opposed to utilitarian gloves made from a hardier substance designed to protect the hands from rough work – see the logic of phrase?). The thing that irks me is that anyone would actually use the phrase based on an incomplete understanding. As I pointed out above, “kiddie gloves” are not a thing, and anyone who thinks about it for half a second should realize that. It bothers me that someone who has a public platform for telling stories and using language should not be more aware of the words they choose.

Words and phrases have meaning. It’s true that meanings shift over time, and I am definitely not one of these prescriptive linguists who would attempt to enforce arbitrary rules or try to uphold one dialect or another as “the standard” of English, but that doesn’t mean that there are no rules or logic to language, and that anything can mean anything. All languages have a complex and nuanced logic that comprises a mixture of history, metaphor, and instinct, and while I do not expect everyone at all times to treat their word choices with the respect and attention it deserves, I do expect professional writers, during their published speeches, to do so.

Daily Prompt: Healthy

Ugh. Healthy. A word I have grown to despise.

Too often, it gets brandished as a weapon of absolutism. People who seek to put others down and lift themselves up by comparison attempt to mask their intentions by wielding the word euphemistically, or by dressing up their criticism as concern: “Is that candy bar really good for you?” or “Oh, no sugar in mine, please. I’m trying to be healthy.” (These are pretty benign examples, though). Usually having to do with weight, food, and exercise, the idea of what’s “healthy” has become a convenient shorthand for summing up a person’s worth. Let’s imagine some scenarios:

  • On Instagram, or Facebook, etc., images of doing something that requires physical exertion, such as hiking, biking, running, or home improvement, possibly accompanied by a caption that emphasizes how healthful the activity is: a classic digital identity marker that screams, “LOOK AT ME! I IS SO HEALTHY DON’T YOU WISH YOU WERE AS VIRTUOUS??” Now, granted, some of us hike or bike or run and just want to occasionally share that part of ourselves digitally. Fine. But usually you can tell when someone’s playing it up to emphasize how HEALTHY they are.
  • You’ve lost a bit of weight, and people start telling you how “healthy” you look. Mmhmm, it’s obvious what’s going on here, no *wink, wink, nudge nudge* needed. When weight is equated with health, we have a problem. Perhaps you have lost weight because you’ve gone on a starvation diet: is that healthy? The truth is, there is no absolute idea of “health” as represented by body shape and size, and therefore no one has a right to use this as a judgment of someone’s health.
  • A food product is advertised as “healthy.” Different people have different metabolisms, engage in different activities, and have different nutrition needs. Also, just as people engage in sex for pleasure, as well as procreation, people eat for pleasure, and not just sustenance. The overwhelming (and misleading) emphasis on defining food as absolutely “healthy” or “not healthy” creates and reinforces a food morality that does nothing to promote actual health.

When used as a relative term, in specific situations, “healthy” is a fine word. But I firmly believe that it’s a personal word. NO ONE other than you, and those you have explicitly authorized (such as your doctor when it comes to strictly medical health, or your close friends and loved ones to whom you have opened up), has the right to tell you what is or is not “healthy.” We should not be intimidated by this judgmental concept of health, we should not give in to health absolutism, and we should be mindful not to perpetuate this toxic form of “morality.”

Edit: came across this article and thought I’d append it here; basically a much-more researched and thought-out discussion of this topic and totally worth the read.

 

Daily Prompt: Vision

Language has an amazing ability to shed light on how we truly think and feel. If our emotions and impulses are bare drywall, then words are the many layers of wallpaper and paint we use to make them presentable to others; yet, like those coverings, words can be peeled away and the layers themselves can be very revealing.

One example I find interesting is the convergence of meanings between “vision” and “dream.” When “vision” is mentioned with no context, we often primarily think of the meaning “the ability to see with the eyes.” And yet, close at hand is the meaning “something seen in the mind.” Likewise, “dream” without context most often invokes “something seen only in the mind.” When referring to mental pictures, the former more often is used to convey a conscious fantasy, something intentionally attempted, and the latter more often to convey an unconscious reverie, something accidentally bestowed, but even this distinction is easily erased: both are often used interchangeably to mean “something seen that isn’t there, that we hope to achieve.” I have a vision for a better future; I have a dream. The ability to dream in this way is uniquely human: most animals have vision, but only humans can have a vision; most animals do dream, but only humans can have a dream.  Perhaps it is our greatest asset as a species.

Side note: last night I had a dream I was killed by terrorists; here’s hoping it was not a vision.

Daily Prompt Challenge: Generation

Immediately I thought: “Generation? That’s a meaningful concept to me, positioned as I am in the weird plot between Generations X, Y, and the Millennials.” In truth, I have many thoughts on the subject, and I know I will mouth off on it one of these days, but soooo many people have already done so. (Here’s one article that comes instantly to mind. This one is pretty good, too.) In fact, though I am guilty of placing way too much weight on my position within “the generations,” I think it is seemingly so significant in large part due to how played-up it already is in our culture: the idea that “my generation” is a badge of identity, a marker of time and place that binds you to some people while setting you off from others. So yeah, I buy in, but I don’t think it’s a particularly original topic.

Secondarily I thought: “But wait, what do they mean by ‘generation’? The word has many seemingly-disparate definitions.” I went to dictionary.com to find out just how many. As far as distinct, modern, general definitions go, it listed FOURTEEN. Skimming the list, it was easy to see the evolution of meanings, stemming from the concept of creation, the word “generate.” I love the word “generate,” because it ties directly into that mother-of-many-words root morpheme, “gen-“: meaning something like “origin,” and being the basis of words such as “genus,” “general,” “genre,” “gender,” and so many more. These words have to do with what makes a thing whole, complete, and distinct from other things. If we can zoom out a little bit to focus again on the lexeme “generate” that serves as a foundation to our prompt of the day, I would call your attention to the “action-y” aspect of the word: while “gen” has much to do with categorical properties (what is), “generate” contains the hope for breaking out of those bonds (what will be). To generate is to create something new, and while what is “new” is rarely radically different from its predecessors (leading, as far as human procreation is concerned, to the phrase “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” among many similar idioms), the fact remains that “generate” blurs the line between where we come from and where we’re going. Central to answering the questions, “Who am I? Why am I here?” are the questions, “Where (and when, and whence) do I come from? How much does that predetermine my choices and their impact?” No wonder, then, that we are so preoccupied with the concept of “generation.”