Being The Change You Want To See In The World – Cliche’s, And Why They Don’t Work The Way We Think They Do

I woke up this morning with three words in my head.

“Be the change.”

I’ve heard this phrase a thousand times – it’s an abbreviation of the cliche “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This is one of the more popular cliche’s thrown around, and one I was just thinking about yesterday.  I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the general use of cliche’s in human communication as I write my book Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer. I’ve discovered that while cliche’s contain certain elements of truth, they themselves are not what we might consider to be truth. They are more like lines from advertising – allusive rather than representative, idealistic rather than realistic, attempts to answer the pressing problems of life, rather than open the subject up to questions or investigation. Cliche’s are the enemy of physical, intellectual and spiritual curiosity. Just ask any child what their mother said to them when they tried to drink water straight from the garden hose or pull a silly face on a windy day. Cliche’s are a bucket of water thrown over life’s burning dilemmas, and in our everyday discourse, on just about any subject you can imagine, it’s possible to find a cliche to serve any of our conversation-stopping needs.

In my book Things Not To Say, I discuss the cancer cliche’s people commonly use with someone who has cancer, usually to head off frightening conversations about sickness and death.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

“The Universe is trying to teach you something.”

Once these sentences have been uttered, for the person on the receiving end, the final word has been virtually declared on the subject, shutting down the possibility of any further discussion. I’ve decided this is what your having cancer is all about where I’m concerned. I’ve designated this particular purpose to your being sick in my own mind as a way of dealing with it, so we can change the subject and talk about something else now. Can’t we?

Once a cliche has been said, the conversation is effectively over. The problem for many people who have cancer is they’d actually like to talk about it, and may even need to talk about it. My book discusses ways to comfortably explore the subject of cancer without feeling the need to extinguish those conversations with cliche’s and platitudes.

(Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer – A Beginners Guide will be out at the beginning of August, by the way.)

We are all wont to using cliche’s from time to time. I hear the “be the change” cliche a lot, probably because of the circles I move in, but while it’s meant to be inspiring and motivating, I actually find it a little frustrating. As with most cliche’s, the thing it asks us to do isn’t always as easy as this makes it sound. “Being the change” can bring with it some significant implications, especially in terms of relationships. If the change I want to see in the world is a world without fear and shame, then I may construe such a phrase to be confirmation I need to leave my marriage, my church or my home. When somebody says to a person with cancer “God wants to use this for His glory”, the person can be left with some pretty burning questions about the kind of god who requires that particular sort of publicity. When someone uses a cliche, it’s never as a conversation opener, and we all know better when someone says something like this to question, “Exactly what do you mean by that?” We simply accept that this is the persons final word on the subject and the topic is now closed for discussion.

Most cliche’s are uttered not because of ignorance, hostility or impoliteness, but because of fear. Cliche’s create distance and proximity between the person who says it the the person they’re talking to. So a phrase like “Be the change you want to see in the world” is another way of saying “I don’t want to hear you complaining about it any more. It’s high time you simply did something yourself.” The cliche was not a question, and was never designed to open the subject up for discussion. So what is it about this situation you find frustrating? What choices do you have before you at the moment? Is this a question of your own ability or confidence, rather than one of power? A cliche says enough with the talk already, here is your answer. But the kinds of situations we tend to throw cliche’s at usually turn out to be far more complex than a cliche can resolve in itself. It is rare we can answer the truly difficult questions in life with just a string of clever words arranged in a pleasing way.

As I mentioned, cliche’s contain elements of truth, but in and of themselves they are not truth. Most cliche’s are abbreviations of things people actually said or wrote in the past, nuggets of wisdom extracted from their context for our convenience and consumption, like an apple plucked from a tree. Unfortunately, when taken out of the context of the tree – being an entity which produces edible fruit, provides shade for humans and is also a home for various creatures – the apple itself as a stand alone entity can be used and misused in a myriad of ways. It’s just as easy to use that apple as a weapon and hit someone on the head with it as it is to stand there and eat it. Further, if we consume the fruit without consideration for the seeds which lie within it, the value of that fruit has stopped with us. We’ve stopped that tree from perpetuating that life which would see it continue on and feed, shade and shelter many more living beings yet to come.

I’m always interested when I hear a new or interesting cliche to discover where it came from. It can be very interesting to learn the original source and context. They usually turn out to be quotes or texts which include far more intricate shades of meaning and have a lot more words in a more complex order. For example, a recent piece by Brian Morton in the New York Times opinion pages reveals that the abovementioned quote – “Be the change you want to see in the world” – often attributed to Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi, also known as Mahatma Ghandi,  is in fact a contraction of the following remark –

““If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Morton goes on to write:

“Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.”

What must also be considered is Ghandi’s political and social context. Quotes such as the one above were spoken in a particular situation to answer a specific dilemma. Taken out on the context of his life, his work and his other writing and utterances, whittled down to a few platitudinal words on a bumper sticker, Ghandi’s original words have been extrapolated of their original depth and meaning, and new attributes assigned to them. Brevity. Succinctness. Universality. However universal the element of truth in this cliche appears to be, mere elements of truth does not equate to universal truth.

Our sacred and holy texts have always been fodder for this kind of social and moral editing. In fact, many of the cliches in common use in the English language mainly attributed to the Bible are not biblical texts at all. For example, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” is not in the Bible. Author Christian Piatt recently wrote two posts about the cliche’s Christians use so frequently, people who don’t know much about the Bible could be forgiven for thinking they were gospel, pardon the pun.

Cliche’s sound like an answer, but they seldom give true solutions to the pressing questions at hand. In my particular area of interest, I’d like to open up the subject of cancer to wider conversations than the ones we’re currently having, and I think we could safely extend this across a great many other social spheres as well. Have a think about your own propensity to answer those questions which challenge and confront you – like cancer – with a cliche. Consider the possibility that what a person really needs from you in that uncomfortable moment is perhaps not a verbal blanket designed to make the whole monstrous thing lie down and go to sleep, but perhaps a more sophisticated approach. A more sophisticated approach may even include saying “I don’t know what to say.” At least that would be honest. Consider that while providing a cliche may stop the anxiety you feel around a subject dead in its tracks, it seldom does anything to alleviate the true issue. When my book comes out in August, I’ll be discussing further ways to hold those challenging conversation around cancer, which often have us scrambling for cliche’s and platitudes, rathae than sitting down for a cup of tea and a good chat. Check back more more information on the release of Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer – A Beginners Guide towards the end of this month.



3 thoughts on “Being The Change You Want To See In The World – Cliche’s, And Why They Don’t Work The Way We Think They Do

  1. This post hits the nail on the head! It was a breath of fresh air. It made me think outside the box and get out of my comfort zone.

    Wait. Can I start over? 😉

    Jo, I am looking forward to reading your book. While I in no way think of cancer as synonymous with death, I do think that people’s reactions are similar toward a person diagnosed with cancer and a person who is newly grieving the death of a loved one. These reactions are fueled by fear, primarily, and discomfort, and are hard to deal with because they are offered when the recipient is emotionally overwhelmed and has the least capacity to overlook an (unintentional, usually) offense.

    In the worst season of grief my family has had, we took a little naughty comfort in the idea of ordering and wearing a t-shirt that says, “Yet, despite the look on my face, you’re still talking.”

    For us, the people who just showed up and sat with us to listen were the most helpful. I think that’s the best gift we give to another person anyway – the dignity of just listening to and accepting them.

    Thanks for another great post!

  2. Well, you sure can write! Communication is an elusive thing… words sometimes leave us lacking. Sometimes gestures are much more rich & meaningful. Thanks for your article. ~ Mary Ann Mehegan, Vaboomer blog

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