"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

Quick, lazy, online sayings that just don't cut it (book excerpt)

 The text that follows is an excerpt from my upcoming new book, The Devils In Your Details. This is from a chapter that deals with increasingly popular, but ultimately ineffectual, sayings and platitudes that we see in particular on social media.

“You’ve got this.”

            I used to say this all the time, primarily in comments on social media posts. Whenever a friend would publish a status update pertaining to a particular struggle they were going through, part of my reply would almost always contain those three words, and I wasn't the only one who had a penchant for defaulting to this platitude. In fact the usage of “you’ve got this” was so prevalent on Facebook especially that the site would instantly convert the text into a boldened deep purple after it was typed (I just checked and as of May 31, 2022 that’s still the case).

            So what’s wrong with this statement? At first glance it may seem like a genuine attempt to boost hope and confidence on the part of the person having the ordeal; it certainly often results in fervid thank yous and several prompt “likes.” However, as with so many readily available sayings that are just a few keystrokes away, its true nature tends to err on the side of shallowness. At best it’s probably a ready-made, simplistic response on your part, meant to assuage potential guilt over otherwise not displaying concern over your friend’s plight. At worst it could be an attempt to publicly choreograph strong moral character on your part to those reading your comment – including your friend – whether that’s rooted in legitimacy or not (this is often called virtue signaling).

            Regardless of whether the former example or the latter is the true impetus behind the statement – or whether it truly does stem from a feeling of genuine care – the problem with “you’ve got this” is that it’s lazy, it’s ineffectual in directly communicating emotive ideation, and sometimes it’s dishonest (whether purposefully or incidentally).

What if “you’ve got this” simply doesn’t apply to the person in question? If they have an illness for which they need medical help, then the onus is on far more than them alone to resolve that matter, and thus your platitude is a negligent generalization. If they’re dealing with a mental health issue to such an extent that they are no longer psychologically capable of taking care of themselves, then NO, they certainly haven’t “got this,” and their rehabilitation would be in the hands of professionals equipped to deal with the matter.

Perhaps it’s not yet so easy to see from these examples how quickly a complacent or disingenuous remark online can lead to a negative outcome – absolutely for you, and potentially for the person to whom you replied, depending on how seriously they assessed your comment and to what degree they took your words to heart. I’ve said these words time and again, willfully blind to the latent irresponsibility in them, and to the reasoning behind saying it. For me, it really did come from a place of genuine care and concern, but only to the extent that it didn’t occupy too much of my time and emotional energy. The fact that people have so much going on in their own lives, so much pain of their own to grapple with, that they sometimes cannot help others (and often don’t want to) beyond the utterance of a few comforting words is deeply saddening, and perfectly understandable.

It's better then to say nothing at all, or only that which is honest. It’s even better yet to display your concern and communicate your emotion through behavior and action, but short of that, any words you deliver to someone have powerful, immutable meaning with the potential to have an effect on the person who sees or hears them, and that effect won’t be contingent upon your reasoning for resorting to quick and easy prosaicisms, when you could have said something deeper, more meaningful, and – if necessary – constructively combative. Alas, the damage will already have been done.

This will prove important not only in the context of maintaining an honorable set of standards to which you hold yourself, but especially in regard to the nature of your interpersonal relationships. If you readily fall back on the easiest and most conveniently dismissive language in your social interactions, you trade honesty for passivity. You sacrifice an outward articulation of compassion for a pretense of emotional inertia.

Friendships are not easy, nor should they be. Problems that arise in the life of a friend to whom you have committed some of your life and being to must be treated conscientiously and attentively whenever possible. It may be that the best response isn’t “you’ve got this,” and 99 times out of 100 that’s probably true. If a friend made a status update about how their life is falling apart; how their car was stolen and their pet is deathly sick and they’ve got a nasty infection, then perhaps you should invest the time and language to inquire as to how they’ll resolve these problems. It might be much more useful to draw upon your own empathy to communicate to them your vicarious sadness or frustration on their behalf, or to communicate your desire to simply listen.

On the other hand, if a friend made a post about how they can’t stop popping pills, and how their friends are taking advantage of them and gossiping about them and ghosting them when it’s convenient, and how their parents aren’t sending them enough money to get by at age 25, then an entirely different response may be required. As their friend it may be best to reply with some tough love, and tell them to get their damned life together; to stop abusing medication or seek professional help; to surround themselves with people who are less dysfunctional and bring positivity into their life; to go out and earn a living for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be financially dependent well into adulthood. If this person is among your best friends, the truest of the true, for whom you’d do anything in your power to help, uplift, and empower, in this kind of situation you’ve got to engage with them in a little disputation, being forceful and assertive even if it’s exhausting or emotionally burdensome for you. Sometimes you’ve got to fight for the people you love, even if it’s a war of words alone.

In other words, “you’ve got this” just isn’t gonna cut it.

No comments:

Post a Comment