The Oddly Poweful Role of Cliches During These Fraught Times

In times of stress, a well-placed cliche can go pretty far.

Posted Aug 20, 2020

I currently find myself surprisingly drawn to the comfort afforded by well-worn clichés:

I must take things a day at a time.

Tomorrow is another day.

The grass is always greener.

Time flies. 

There are all sorts of ways I would have lambasted each of these axioms a mere four months ago. Four months ago, I’d have rousingly argued that a cliché is where you go when your keyboard, and your vocabulary, and, most importantly, your creativity, all conspire to render what you put on the page effectively meaningless.

But that was before 2020 declared itself as a year to beat all years. (Yep, that’s another cliché, and as you may have noticed, I am italicizing each cliché that emerges in this piece to help us all to keep track.) Over these last eight months, I have watched the ravages of a global pandemic and the shameful inequities of base racism and corruption. At the end of the day, I now find that this uniquely bizarre and awful time yields clichés that are really not so clichéd after all.

You see, in these extraordinary times, clichés become as ripe as ready fruit. These phrases, overused as they are during ordinary days, become charged and starkly original as we boldly face the tail end of this bizarro year with our eyes wide open. 

For kicks, therefore, and because I cannot bring myself to read the news right now, and because my 5 p.m. patient needed to cancel, I thought I’d elucidate the clichés that I am today finding most useful. I invite readers to share with me the clichés that have helped them as we fight this good fight. There must be strength in numbers even if that strength derives from an abundance of trite phrases that speak truth to our seeming lack of power. (That is a bastardized cliché, I suppose...the whole truth to power thing, but credit should go where credit is due—and we have yet another cliché). I shall endeavor as well to use the internet to explicate the origins of each of these phrases. That will perhaps allow insight into the near-magical powers that these old words bring to our table.

Cliché #1: There, but for the Grace of God, go I.

I don’t know if it is fair to call this a cliché. Any statement mentioning a deity seems to automatically qualify for something more than a throw-away phrase. When we turn to higher powers because we are challenged to make sense of the fickle behavior of fate, we are treated to a reminder that we are neither deserving nor undeserving of dumb luck.

Like many clichés, the origins of this phrase are not certain, though most sources suggest that a version of it was once uttered by the English theologian John Bradford sometime during the mid 16th century. Upon seeing a criminal being led to the gallows, Bradford is said to have uttered “There, but for the Grace of God, goes John Bradford.” The statement finds a close match as well in a much earlier document — Corinthians, 15:8-10 finishes with the humble recognition that “But by the grace of God I am what I am.”

Personally, I find this phrase immensely useful as I ponder the relative health and safety of my family, forcing myself to reckon with the fact that it is at most beyond my understanding and at least a function of dumb luck that I was born into a skin pigment and a socioeconomic status that statistically allows me to less painfully weather the current storm of this frightening pandemic. This cliché prevents me from taking too much credit for the fact that I can still pay my bills and put a roof over my head, but reminds me as well, even in the absence of any organized theological ideas that I might or might not possess, that I do in fact play a very real role in at least some of what happens to those who are dear to me. If I were more recognizably religious, I would argue that God’s grace allows me the wisdom to listen to the scientists and to avoid the pettiness that is more likely to bring harm than reliable solace.

Cliché #2: Trust in God, but learn to swim.

Wow. Maybe I am more spiritual or at least more agnostically inclined than I had at first imagined. Still, this is a kind of a social foxhole in which we are all taking cover, and it has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes.

As far as I am concerned, the origin of the sentiment comes from my Uncle Morrie. He was a towering 5’2”, had a smile that could on its own disarm the most stringent of anger, and although, and even perhaps because he was a devout man, he was also a pragmatist. “Trust in God, Steven,” he would say. “But learn to swim.” Nevertheless, I must do my due diligence and tell you that before my Uncle Morrie said this, it seems to have first been uttered as a Russian proverb that translates roughly as “Pray to God but row to shore.”

Either way, via Russia or via Uncle Morrie, the sentiment reminds me to own my actions as having rewards and consequences. I suppose I shouldn’t have to remind myself of this, but things can get awfully busy these days. I’ll be actively taking the time to support my choice for President. I intend, in addition, to engage as much as possible in open-minded discussions that I hope will unflinchingly but fairly view the emperor in his most naked state despite the abiding belief by some that he remains adorned and gilded. (yeah, that’s a paraphrased cliché. Count it.)

Cliché #3: It is what it is.

Here’s one that our President and our former First Lady have seen fit to utilize in the last few weeks. But it is worth pointing out that each used this phrase with what at least to me seems to be a vastly different sense of the power contained in those five simple words.

Let’s start by tracing the origin of the phrase. Multiple sources suggest that it was first used by columnist J. E. Lawrence in a 1949 article in the Nebraska State Journal. Mr. Lawrence was describing the hard-scrabble world of the midwestern frontier and wrote that the difficult environment had not an ounce of “sham or hypocrisy.” “It is what it is,” he wrote of that untamed land.

Fascinatingly, the phrase has wandered through multiple iterations of meaning in its relatively short lifespan. Some have argued that it is especially useful in sports. A referee makes a bad call, but “it is what it is.” The ref is the ref. Deal with it. (Another version of the same cliché). This parsing suggests that the phrase is meant to lay blame outside the locus of one’s control, even if one must deal with the consequences. 

Of course, saying “it is what it is” does not absolve one of prior responsibility, especially if corrective action remains possible once the damage is done. The President has to some extent reversed course from an earlier less-than-blasé approach to the pandemic, but he has yet to acknowledge that he holds some responsibility for our inadequate national response to the current crisis.

That brings me to the other meaning that is often attributed to this particular cliché. “It is what it is” has also been used as a means of saying that it is time to get to work to make things better. To the extent that making things better involves the acknowledgment of past missteps in order to regain confidence and to learn from our mistakes, I find this phrase powerfully resilient when it is deployed with authenticity and optimism. Dispassionately, enthusiastically, and with humble curiosity, we must carefully exam what “it is” that comprises the mess that we are in. Only then can we right our ship. (And we have a final cliché to round out this essay.)

Look. I find I can put these clichés to work to empower me to do what I can to make things better. I will strive to remember that I am neither exceptional nor powerless. I will know that there are forces out there—luck, divine providence, perhaps both; who am I to say — but that at the end of the day, the buck stops with all of us. And yes, thank you, Harry Truman, for putting that adult concept on all of our doorsteps. I have no idea if that phrase originated with you or has more distant roots, but I have another patient and must therefore research the etymology another time. Plus, this essay is already too long. (Apologies.)  

Stay safe. Do not give up. I'll say it again: We can right the ship. That's what the clichés tell us.