Platitudes and Privilege

Life isn’t about waiting for storms to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.

Beautiful sentiment, yes? Sure, until you reach your tipping point. Until experience extends beyond the place these sentiments can reach and their wisdom is reduced to empty-caloric, sugar-coated babble.

My friend tossed me this platitude recently.* She emailed to ask how I was. My reply included a paragraph about my Chronic Fatigue/Epstein-Barr and how I struggled to get through work. I didn’t go on and on about it, but did share honestly.

She replied that her niece has the same problem, but goes about her life because she has to.

That type of response is called “discounting” because she discounted the value of my experience and assumed it was of equal worth with someone else’s. Then came the quote about dancing in the rain.

I felt myself react, but made a choice to let it go. One month later she wrote another email with “Dancing in the Rain” in the subject line. Her email ended with, “Remember. Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” What was initially annoying became as a fly buzzing incessantly in my ear. My kindness hadn’t killed a thing. I needed to swat back, so I replied:

I don’t care for platitudes about dancing in the rain. They work to a point, and then they ring hollow. It’s not a negative. It’s just a reality.

I haven’t heard back.

My friend enjoys a health privilege. When we talk about privilege in our society, it’s usually in the context of racial or economic disparity. Those who have never known anything but privilege are often highly opinionated, and clueless, toward those who struggle.

I enjoy a children privilege. I have loving relationships with my adult children, who are self-sufficient and good to their mother. Their teen years were a pleasure and I didn’t experience the challenges many parents do. I don’t take credit for it. People say I should, and I suppose I had something to do with it, but in truth they just came out that way. Easy. Low maintenance. I got lucky.

My friend has pretty much everything — except the love of her children. They’re estranged, one of them having gone years without speaking to her. She had shared her disappointment and pain one Mother’s Day when she didn’t hear from the one daughter and the other, the good one, chose to spend the day with her boyfriend’s family, only sending her a text. How would she have felt if I’d told her to learn to dance in the rain? I’m guessing it would have stung and made her feel even more alone.

I wouldn’t think of offering her parenting advice. What would I say? I have no experience with estranged children. Any advice she might need is outside my realm of knowledge because my privilege cushions me from the hurt and struggle she experiences as a parent.

The one who plays piano by ear wouldn’t know how to teach another to read music and play piano. She jumped from A to Z because of an advantage from birth and has no clue about the process.

When it comes to health, it’s easy for my friend to dance in the rain because she’s sheltered from the storm. Anyone can dance to the beat of thunder inside the warmth of a house. When she says these things, I erect an invisible wall because I recognize the platitude to be a flimsy pacifier. A white noise machine to silence the ugly sounds that puncture the veil of happy.

I’m not opposed to dancing in the rain. It’s a good thing when you pull it off, but here’s how it plays out in reality:

On my best days, I dance in the rain.

On my worst days, I fixate on dark clouds and see little else but blackened sky.

On most days, I’m somewhere in between. I may not dance, but I manage to notice the flowers and the way the drops of rain bead and slide down the petals. I see the shrubs and trees, how their leaves pop with new shades of green that remind me the rain brings out the beauty in living things, even if that beauty is rooted in sadness.

I listen to the sound of the rain as it pummels the earth. The mystery is if I listen closely, I hear the whispered secrets of the very thing that dampens my world.

To be told life isn’t about waiting for storms to pass sounds like life in prison to the soul caught in a violent storm. Looking forward to the sun’s return sustains us with hope for better days.

Dancing in the rain is only part of life. A small part. To insist otherwise is to disengage from a myriad of human emotions and deny oneself the full spectrum of experience. It’s time our society stops shaming those who feel their sadness. A bandage may stop the bleeding, but soon it must be ripped off so the wound can air and heal.

If life gives you lemons, do as you wish, but know that lemonade is not the only recipe that makes good use of lemons. And lemonade, like platitudes, is filled with sugar. While it tastes good as it swirls in your mouth, it really is full of crap.

* FYI: This is the same friend I mentioned in my post, Cancer Girls With Big Mouths.

Comments

  1. This! So much this! xx

  2. The Accidental Amazon says:

    I love this post. Yes, what a great way to express this kind of disconnect — the health privilege. Totally spot on. You really can’t imagine what someone else is going through if you haven’t walked in their shoes. But I don’t now why people think it’s okay to invalidate or judge someone else’s feelings or experience. Yet it happens all the time. Thank you, Eileen. xoxo, Kathi

    • Kathi, our society doesn’t accept weakness unless it ends with a “rise from the ashes” finale. Realty is that most people’s lives don’t follow the arches of Hollywood scripts. They do make good stories though. xo

      • The Accidental Amazon says:

        And there’s the value judgment I’ve written about before, that people judge some feelings to be ‘better’ than others,so that feeling sad, frightened,or stressed is seen as a sign of weakness. Which is utter hogwash.

  3. nancyspoint says:

    Hi Eileen,
    Invalidating or trivializing someone else’s experience is hurtful, potentially harmful and just plain wrong. It’s extra meaningful to me right now as I attempt to navigate grieving for my dad. It relates here too. Brilliant post. Thank you.

    • Oh, Nancy, I remember well the loathesome things people said when my father died. I’m so sorry you’ve been subjected to any of that. xoxo

  4. Eileen,

    You’ve nailed this! We’ve all endured the platitudes that unknowingly invalidate our experiences. One can put up with the ones well intended; but the ones that contain oblique criticism and judgement are just too much. Time to find new friends (and we’ve all had to do that too!)

    • Pat, you’re right that we can put up with the ones that are well intended. I think we know when someone is trying to comfort us and is not judgmental. Love can be clumsy at times, but we appreciate the heart of the matter. Judgment that hides behind pretty sayings is a whole other thing. And, yes, cancer does bring shifts and changes to our relationships.

  5. YES! YES! A perfectly brilliant post. xoxoxo

    • One question: Did your “friend” recognize herself in the big mouth blog? And if so, did she mention it???? Will she read this? (That’s the gossip in me wanting the story to come back around!) xoxoxo

  6. Terrific!

  7. I love this post, Eileen. Thank you for putting it out there. This topic is very important because it doesn’t just apply to illnesses but to every challenging situation we face in our daily lives. It’s time to have an honest/open conversation about it, starting with questioning one’s ability to empathize and understand/accept reality. I believe acknowledging someone else’s pain is part of the solution.

    Like Amy, I was very curious to know if this friend of yours reads your blog and if she ever recognized herself in the original piece you wrote. One thing I experience with some of my friends is that they take what I say personally, but the ones who should be reading what I write, choose not to. Sometimes I feel like I am talking to a wall because only those who actually do the listening are the ones who support me. I do have honest conversations with friends from time to time. And I am glad you’ve spoken your mind too. xoxo

    • Rebecca, personally, I don’t care if my non-cancer friends read my blog. I get that the vast majority of what I write doesn’t apply to them. I’m okay with that, but I’m not okay with the kind of veiled judgment that I wrote about. None of us are. As for the friend I mentioned, she doesn’t read my blog so I felt safe to write about her. If I’d thought she read my blog, I wouldn’t have directed it at her because I think it would have been mean. I’m just glad I have you and all the other bloggers to commiserate with. xo

      P.S. I just realized that I do have several non-cancer friends who choose to read my blog. I’m always surprised but pleased at how many of them do relate because they have things going on in their lives where the general principles I write about apply to them. That’s when I realize that many of the things we write about have universal appeal. And I should mention that those who take the time to read and relate are among the more sensitive people I know.

  8. I can’t express how poignant your words are to me.

    • I’m so glad, Neil. There’s so much pressure to smile and perform when it takes energy we often don’t have. Sometimes we just need permission to be exactly where we are without judgment. I hope my words conveyed my acceptance to you.

  9. Health privilege is definitely a thing, and most don’t realize that. In my early days of blogging, still in that awful post treatment depression phase, I read some comments on a HuffPo piece about friends who 1) say the wrong thing and 2) expected her to be over it already (the death of her baby, but she included things like cancer and chronic illness in her essay). This comment was defensive saying stuff like well it’s a new area for the friend too, and that if sick people continued to complain about dumb shit their friends say, then sick people would find their friends just go away.
    What amazed me is how this person did not even see her healthy status as a privilege her friend does not enjoy, and the utter self-centeredness of it. I always say that instead of wondering what the right thing to say is, maybe people should shut up and listen. If this person hadn’t been so self-involved she would’ve realized the right thing to say was right there in the essay.
    Yes, people are blind to their privilege.

  10. Absolutely!

    This is EXACTLY the moments I have been experiencing and have literally just discussed in my counselling session last Friday.

    You know, the counselling sessions you go to because you feel like you should and need to, but you still worry that people may think your doing it only to extend the dramatisation of having been a ‘cancer victim’…

    Thank you so much.

    It seems I came across this at exactly the right time. I have the confirmation I needed that actually it’s ok for me to be brutally honest and feel annoyed at people’s complacency towards my situation.

    I’ve been ill physically. I’m still ill mentally and emotionally while suffering physical side effects.

    The old me is gone…

    The new me is like an erratic teenager trying to figure out where I stand in ‘Life’

    Urgh…

    • Helena, I love your analogy of the erratic teenager. Dealing with body changes. Feeling like we’re no longer one thing but not sure of who we’ve become. Trying to process the changes illness brings. It’s really hard. Thanks for reading and leaving feedback. You’re not alone.

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