Any good writer knows that the cardinal rule of writing is to eschew platitudes.
Budding writers, from a young age, are trained in the ways of vigilance. We are taught to scrutinize our sentences, looking to root out hackneyed phrases and banal constructions that threaten to eclipse our authentic voice like noxious, overgrown weeds.
As we grow up, our worldview becomes messier, gaining the nuance of an increasingly complex consciousness. We are forced to reconsider convictions, to balance extremes — deontology and teleology, God and modernism — and to develop our own system of ethics. And so, we are lulled by this complexity to think that platitudes have no place in ethics or in art. We find their veneer over-polished, banishing clichés to cheap thrillers and dispossessing them of any applicability to the real world. The notion that time heals all wounds scarcely seems applicable to the amputation of a limb.
Our denunciation of platitudes is undeniably a product of the narrative that each one of us has an exceptional point of view, one that defies the inherent universality of generalizations. Can pithy sayings and clichés contain pearls of wisdom that apply to each of us, even in the face of infinite and infinitesimal complexity?
The central problem is that inspiration breeds wisdom, and inspiration is as elusive as it is subjective. Some find inspiration in Taylor’s version of Red, in her symbolic reclamation of her own musical agency, while others find inspiration in Tolstoy’s self-portraits, as Levin ponders the meaning of his very existence with his whetted scythe. However, in all cases, inspiration seems embedded within grand narratives and magnum opuses. Personal inspiration and transcendent wisdom are contingent on their context — found at the apotheosis of an artist’s lifelong musical journey or at the climax of a character arc. Platitudes are disembodied — the limbs that once connected them to real life have been mutilated by Procrustes. They are fit for a world of forms, not a world of being.
Our resistance to simply, artificially packaged one-liners of wisdom is natural. However, perhaps the problem is not the processing of platitudes but our consumption of them.
Platitudes are thrown at us like panaceas. Hearing statements like “you’ll laugh about this moment in 10 years” is particularly unhelpful to a Yale student who feels like their world is burning in a hellfire of midterms and extracurriculars.
But if aphorisms are abstracted from real life, their value comes from when they are reapplied.
If aphorisms are reductionist, they are a starting point to develop wisdom that we apply to our lives, not wisdom in its ultimate form. Telling me to cherish the small victories — including the simple fact that I am at Yale — rings very different on the first day of the spring when the snow has melted and when Cross Campus comes back to life and in the middle of finals week.
I want to “live in the moment” when I’m surrounded by fall foliage and permanent laughter on retreat with a comedy group, less so on a Tuesday morning before my 9 a.m.
Aphorisms and clichés are inescapable during our bright college years. The first time you struggle with your identity, you’ll hear a litany of people saying “be yourself because that’s what matters.” The first time you fail you’ll hear proclamations about each failure being a step on the staircase to success. Sometimes these can be reassuring. Other times it can remind us that we were not created by Aesop, and our lives are not fables. Sometimes pithy moral witticisms just don’t help.
What would happen, then, if we decided to build our own aphorisms? Scour your favourite books, movies, poems for lines of inspiration that struck you and let those be the lyrics to your soundtrack. You don’t need to “pray for a window to open when a door closes,” in the words of your least favourite elementary school teacher. You can take Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha as your inspiration instead — relying on the notion that our path is a spiral and we have climbed many steps instead.
Applying aphorisms is submitting to a deterministic fallacy. Discovering them is glimpsing into the transcendence and universality of our experiences at college. You don’t need to convince yourself that everything happens for a reason. You’ll believe it after your first serendipitous meeting in a classroom, party or coffee shop. Telling yourself to live, laugh and love may be the least effective thing you can do for your own happiness, but reflecting on a life full of laughter and love might just be the key to contentment.
PRADZ SAPRE is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. His column, titled ‘Growing pains’, runs every other Monday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.