The Secret is Below the Surface

Almost all gestures of sympathy and congratulation, of sorrow and joy, are expressed in trite shopworn platitudes. It isn’t because people don’t care, although let’s be honest, sometimes they don’t. People are so uncertain of their abilities to articulate momentous things. They feel inadequate in the face of grand moments. They speak greeting card. They opt for vague and indirect, as if the recipient or listener is not aware of what’s happened. They’re not fooling anybody.

It’s uncomfortable because we are seeing people in very intimate times, suddenly in the midst of very public private things. What to do? Be open and honest. Don’t make it about yourself. You’ll get your turn another day. Everybody does. Go ahead and write what you really feel about it. Go ahead and say that you hate what’s happened to your friend. Orwell said never to use a big word when a small word will do, which means that you don’t need to get out a thesaurus. Why not tell people that you’re jumping up and down with excitement for them, instead of congratulating them on their good fortune? Use honest, specific language. Think about what it really means, really feels like, this momentous event. Be real about it.

When my mother died, a longtime family friend walked up to me, and said nothing. He just stood there and looked at me with tears in his eyes and gave his head a little shake. It was the most profound expression of sympathy I experienced that day, and it’s the only one I remember. I’d like to live in a culture where the visitors arrive wailing. If you want me to believe that you share my grief or my joy, show me. Don’t use the same phrases that have been calcified for decades. Freshen them up.

Get below the surface of your intellect, find some feelings, and describe them. Your listener will be relieved.


Filed under On Writing

2 responses to “The Secret is Below the Surface

  1. dorgrease

    I think that is why your comments to me were so meaningful as I have been struggling through my loss. You really did find a way to get below the surface.

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