Monday, May 23, 2016

Sometimes a cliche is just what you need to hear

noun: cliché; plural noun: clichés; noun: cliche; plural noun: cliches
  1. a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

Most of the time I don't appreciate clichés. For a writer, they're the enemy: a good writer will try to say things in a fresh, vivid way, not just reach for an easy shortcut like "Suddenly the truth hit him like a ton of bricks" ... zzzzzzzzzzz.  

Clichés can also be clumsy attempts to gloss over a difficult situation or to offer phony comfort without real understanding: 

  • "Just fake it till you make it."  

  • "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." (My friend Tim Fall's version of this one is better: "What doesn't kill you can still hurt quite a bit.")

There are also quite a few clichés about special needs parenting, like 

  • "I don't think I could do what you do." (Meant as a compliment, but there's an unspoken "And I hope I never have to try!" in there.)
  •  "God never gives us more than we can handle." (Well, God may not, but sometimes life does. And anyway, I don't think God doles out people's circumstances according to what He thinks they can "handle.")
But sometimes, a cliché is just what you need to hear.

Two summers ago when we were in PEI, I attended a reunion for the New Christian Singers, a group I had been in when I was in my late teens. This reunion took place when my mom was in hospital and facing her cancer diagnosis, so although the event was happening at a very challenging time, it was an amazing opportunity to catch up with people I hadn't seen in years and share stories of God's faithfulness in our lives.

On that weekend our group performed three concerts. Because of what was going on with our family I could only sing in two of them; Richard and the kids came to hear us both times. At the Saturday evening concert, he and the kids sat in the front row, and a group of older people whom I didn't recognize sat behind them. 

As soon as the music started, Jonathan got excited. VERY excited. He called out "Mommy!" Throughout the concert he laughed and whooped and clapped and bounced up and down.

I was worried that the people behind them might be upset -- maybe Jonathan was spoiling the experience for them. But since I was up on stage for the entire hour, there wasn't much I could do about it.

The concert went really well. The church rang with our harmonies, and our hearts soared as we sang songs many of us hadn't sung in thirty years or more. Our group and the people who'd come to hear us all seemed to have a wonderful evening. 

Afterward, when I stepped down off the stage, one of the people who'd been sitting  behind Richard and the kids -- an older woman with a touch of a French accent -- came up to me.

"Was that your little boy in front of us?" she asked.

It did occur to me to say, "Oh, no, I've never met him before in my life" --  but I decided I should tell the truth and say yes.

She remarked on what a good time Jonathan seemed to be having and how well Richard had dealt with him. Then she told me she had had a handicapped son who had died many years ago -- and she said, "It's a special thing to have special children." 

I didn't know this lady at all. She was from way up in the west end of the Island and had come to the concert with someone she was visiting. Those words about having special children, coming from a stranger like she was, might have ended up sounding trite or simplistic. But to me, they were a blessing. She spoke from the heart and from a depth of personal experience that our brief conversation couldn't plumb. And Jonathan's enthusiasm hadn't bothered her or ruined the concert for her. In fact, she had enjoyed it, and she made a point of letting us know. Her words helped both me and Richard at a time when we were under a lot of stress. 

Proverbs 25:11 (in the Message) says, "The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry." Who knew: even a cliché can be the right word at the right time.


  1. Her words covered you like a warm blanket.

    Sorry, couldn't resist the opportunity to indulge a cliché, Jeannie.

    Speaking of clichés, I once watched Casablanca with someone who laughed throughout, repeatedly saying, "This movie is so full of clichés!" It's like someone reading Hamlet and asking why Shakespeare couldn't come up with something more original than "To be, or not to be."

    1. That's so funny, Tim! It's true: those sayings that now seem so hackneyed were really fresh and original at one time.

  2. I so appreciate when people help me to see my children again with fresh eyes... Even if they don't use fresh words :)

    1. So true, Bronwyn! Sometimes we need others' perspective to see what we might not -- and how they say it matters less than what we get out of it.

  3. Wow. This didn't go at all where I expected, and I found myself tearing up. Sincere thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much, Liz - I appreciate your comment. Glad this spoke to you.

  4. Hi Jeannie, Thank you for sharing that beautiful experience and your reflections on it! It reminds me of a passage in George MacDonald's "Thomas Wingfold, Curate" -

    "... A mere truism, is it? Yes, it is, and more is the pity; for what is a truism, as most men count truisms? What is it but a truth that ought to have been buried long ago in the lives of men - to send up for ever the corn of true deeds and the wine of loving-kindness - but, instead of being buried in friendly soil, is allowed to lie about, kicked hither and thither in the dry and empty garret of their brains, till they are sick of the sight and sound of it, and, to be rid of the thought of it, declare it to be no living truth but only a lifeless truism! Yet in their brain that truism must rattle until they shift it to its rightful quarters in their heart, where it will rattle no longer but take root and be a strength and loveliness. ... To the critic the truism is a sea-worn, foot-trodden pebble; to the obedient scholar, a radiant topaz, which, as he polishes it with the dust of its use, may turn into a diamond."

    1. What a great quote, Franceen! Thanks so much for sharing it.

  5. I love this post for many reasons. First of all, what an encouraging experience. Thanks for sharing it.

    You mentioned the woman's slight French accent, and that made me think about us non-native English speakers. We sometimes use cliches without realizing how overused they are - well, if the phrases are used a lot, we're more likely to learn them, but they don't sound so hackneyed to us... And for a non-native speaker, the advantage of using a cliche is that it's usually correct English and people know what it means. If we try to say something really original, it might end up sounding just peculiar :)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tuija -- I hadn't thought about that aspect. I guess when you are really speaking from the heart, that comes through and the words themselves don't matter quite so much.

  6. Love this. That's definitely an example of a cliche used well :)

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Hannah!


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