Four Pearls of “Wisdom” We Should Outlaw TODAY

Grandma wasn't always right. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Grandma wasn’t always right. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Ready to tell me I’m over-thinking this and being too negative? Too bad. I’m a writer deep in a depressive episode. You are welcome to rebut my take on these aphoristic affronts to the psyche on your own blog, with lots of smiley emoticons.

Image: © Nevit Dilmen. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Image: © Nevit Dilmen. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

1)       “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”

The person who came up with this one probably never suffered anything worse than a runny nose in his whole life and thinks his existence is the standard by which all others should be judged. Or it was a person grasping at inspirational straws in her quest to keep choking down $9 gluten-free kale crackers.

I understand the sentiment here: you get only one body (until medical science can re-grow body parts in procedures 50 years from now which will cost $400 in Europe and $7,800 in the US). You should appreciate your health now because next month you could have a stroke or ovarian cancer or end up in rehab from whiplash after some texting 17-year-old idiot rear-ends you.

But as a person with a chronic mental and physical illness, I see this saying for the smug claptrap that it is. It’s demeaning to people who live and work with mental and physical challenges every day. If you don’t have Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, or bipolar disorder, someone in your office probably does. Try telling that person, “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything,” when she’s pulling her weight at work and at home, just as well as you are, with the help of a good doctor, the right medications, and a hell of a lot of internal grit.

If you don’t have your health, you don’t have your health, and you live your life anyway. That’s it. It’s not like everything is either a mild cold or that episode of House where a girl almost dies because she gets a deer tick in her vagina.

1859's "The Kiss" by Francesco Hayez. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
1859’s “The Kiss” by Francesco Hayez. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

2)      “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

This howler could not have been coined by anyone who was ever actually in love. The saying should be, “Living with a partner acclimated to your verbal or physical abuse means never having to say you’re sorry.”

If the original saying is true, it would have to rest on one of two premises:

a)      People never, ever do anything, on purpose or by accident, that hurts or offends their lover.

b)      People in love automatically forgive any transgression, without the need for acknowledgment or communication.

I dare you to share your life with someone and never get on their nerves the teeniest bit (though I admit I’m a maladjusted individual – irritability is a symptom of depression). You are not perfect and you will make mistakes. You move forward by apologizing to the people you hurt. Don’t assume they’ll happily ignore your bad behavior because they love you.

From the mouths of (rabbit) babes.
From the mouths of (rabbit) babes.

3)      “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

The first time I remember hearing this gem, Bambi’s rabbit pal Thumper was getting an earful from his mom.

This one really rubs me the wrong way, because I’ve been scolded for writing about too many negative topics instead of something funny and nice, when my intention was to address a serious real-world injustice. Tell me how many problems we’ll solve if we all clam up unless we have something “nice” to say.

I get the message: tearing other people down or complaining just for the sake of it isn’t kind or productive. And I might not mind this one so much if, in my experience, all the people sharing variations of it on Facebook weren’t women.

Because women are particularly vulnerable to the poison of this mindset: that we shouldn’t open our mouths if we’re sad, or frustrated, or hurt, because nice girls smile when you ask them to and have good manners, no matter what. Readers and people in my own circle have said, as if they’re confiding something painful and surprising, that I seem “angry.” Well, guess what? I feel angry sometimes. But I get the feeling that that’s a crime because I’m a woman.

1)      “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

I’ve had some arguments with my esteemed friend and colleague Kile Smith, a writer and composer, but when I read his recent piece in Broad Street Review, where I’m the associate editor, it was like he took the words right out of my brain.

“All these decisions are small, but all work is small. (‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ is poster bilge, salve for indolence),” he writes of the minute but deeply consequential tinkering of the successful creative process.

Right on, Kile. Next time someone asks me how I became a writer, I’ll tell them it’s because I sweated the small stuff that sets me apart from a thousand wannabe writers.

Again, I admit the kernel of truth. Keep your sights on the things that really matter: your family, your health, and salted caramel ice cream. Don’t have a coronary because some jerk cut you off in traffic.

But the truth is that any kind of success, especially career success, is all about sweating the small stuff: the details that make you excel. I’ll tell you who isn’t sweating the small stuff. Magazines that don’t pay on time. Writers who can’t meet deadlines. PR associates who don’t pick up the phone. Restaurant servers who can’t remember to put the dressing ON THE SIDE. People whose dogs have matted, dirty fur. Able-bodied people who park in handicapped spots.

Is this the ranting of a psychotic perfectionist?


I admit I’ve never read any of the Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff self-help best-sellers by Richard Carlson, Ph.D (now deceased) and his wife, Kristine Carlson, but I really enjoyed perusing their website.

The couple’s other titles include Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in Love, with tips like “appreciate your spouse in new ways” and “look out for each other.” Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Women touts tips for “debating effectively with spouses and partners” and “dealing with children and friendships.”

There’s also Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Men, with tips to “relieve stress, and gain more peace and joy.” These include, “learn about life from golf,” “spend more time with your kids,” and “have an affair.”

Yes, really. It’s on the website.

Now I can see why Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Women also offers hints on “learning to laugh when all else fails.”

I guess a woman who gets upset when her husband cheats is sweating the small stuff. Because he never has to say he’s sorry, and if she can’t say anything nice, she doesn’t say anything at all.

What are your least favorite words of wisdom?



Add yours →

  1. Love your dissection of these annoying sayings. A couple of my least favorites ~ Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach and Nice guys finish last.

    • Yeah, those are prime stupid sayings. The fallacy that teaching isn’t its own particular skill is particularly galling. There are probably enough of these for a series of blog posts. Then poor Grampa doesn’t have to call me to ask whether it’s feed a cold and starve a fever, or starve a cold and feed a fever.

  2. Excellent, Alaina, and yes, a series of posts could be generated on this! Thanks for your kind thoughts, as always. Since I can never remember in re: colds and fevers, my advice is, if I’m hungry, I eat; if not, I don’t. I don’t mind so much not having a good memory, but, you know, if I don’t have my health…

    • Also: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” I have done this for maybe a decade at great cost because I prefer organic apples, and my lumbar spine seems to be disintegrating anyway. Maybe I should have had Twinkies or something instead.

  3. Mmm.
    “Your best teacher is your last mistake”
    “You have all the resources you need, within you”
    Whenever I want wisdom-bollocks, I go on facebook.

  4. I tend to use “If you don’t have anything nice to say” less as a general statement (in architecture and writing sometimes you deal with the nasties) but more of a guideline on how not to approach people: ie. gossip, slander, heaping on verbal abuse. But I agree that it gets taken way too far on things.

    Don’t sweat the small stuff is different in my profession. A small crack may be just crappy workmanship on a site, or it may be a leaky foundation. But ignoring it could lead to serious consequences on my end.

    My current nugget of wisdom that people proliferate is “it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission” which I think is supposed to appeal to the creative mindset, but instead means the cheater will ask for forgiveness instead.

    • I thought it was “it is better to ask for permission than to ask for forgiveness”? When did THAT get turned around? Or I am just an insufferable goody-two-shoes? But I can see the appeal of going for whatever you want to do and then just hoping the victim accepts your apology later. If they don’t — hey, at least you still got to do what you wanted.

      I might let “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” stand if it was revised to “if you don’t have anything productive to say…” I agree there are nasties in many professions, including mine. Some editors are just cantankerous people and don’t get me started on the comment section. (Here, of course, things are a tad more civilized, but people with very odd convictions do sometimes come out of the woodwork.) I don’t mind truths that are hard to hear if they make my work better.

  5. Good post, no matter what state of mind you wrote it in. [smiley emoticon deleted]

    Every saying has its appropriate place. For some, it’s the circular file. Your #1 and #2 are definites for that honor. #3 & #4 are sometimes useful, but fail for general use.

    One that I find very annoying:

    “You create your own reality.”

    Okay, so if you’re the victim of a mugger, a sociopath, a sexual predator, or a chronic disease, it’s all your own @#$% fault???

    If you were born into grinding poverty or abuse, or with a congenital disease, that’s something you chose, or brought upon yourself due to sins in a past life?

    Nice way to blame the victim.

    • Thank you, Lee, for adding yet another shining example to the pantheon of bad aphorisms. “You create your own reality” MIGHT be true if it was revised to say, “You create your own state of mind,” unless you’re talking about a person with depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, a thyroid imbalance, a vitamin deficiency, Alzheimer’s, seasonal affective disorder…

      People who think you create your own reality are probably the ones raking in millions for writing smarmy self-help books about how the key to financial riches is all in your thinking (nothing to do with inborn racial or sexual privilege, skills or talents), or the ones blaming women for getting raped because they wore the wrong outfit or went out at the wrong time of day or walked in the wrong place.

      A related pearl of wisdom that always stuck in my craw: an idea some people espouse that if you’re annoyed, the problem is within yourself and not the other person — anger and discontent are all projections. I admit that we’re all prone to projecting our problems onto others. But sometimes, people just do shitty things and you have a right to be mad at them.

      Thanks as always for weighing in.

  6. Oh, there are so many. Here’s a few:
    “Don’t worry, be happy.” About what? The fact that I’m not taking the world around me seriously? How am I going to stay happy when my rent isn’t paid and I don’t have anything to eat because I didn’t want to worry about it?

    “Blood is thicker than water.” What if your family is crazy? Maybe your parents are narcissists and your siblings are distant at best. Maybe you’re an orphan. Maybe your parents disowned you. Maybe you disowned them. There are all sorts of reasons you might not be close to your family and your friends might fill that gap.

    “Respect your elders.” On a similar vein. While I feel many people older than me are full of wisdom, that doesn’t mean they all deserve my utmost respect just because they’re older, especially if they’re also really mean.

    There are others. These are just what I can think of now. A lot of sayings tend to bother me.

    • More good entries. I generally agree with advice like “respect your elders,” but this can go oh so wrong when vulnerable children learn to respect what adults say and do at all costs. But I regularly practice this one myself, when elderly conservatives get going about how they heard on Fox News that Obama was born in Africa and is “worse than a socialist.” I don’t argue, I just politely change the subject.

      Thanks for weighing in.

  7. There’s a book idea in here. You should compile even more and rant, rant, rant! 🙂

  8. Always nice to begin the week with a good rant. Thanks.

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