What Doesn’t Kill You
Is it just me, or does the expression, ‘When one door closes, a window opens’ make you cringe, too? I get that it’s a neat phrase designed to provide comfort – a slightly more creative alternative to ‘don’t worry, it’ll be OK’ – but the fact that it’s trite and meaningless is surely indisputable.
It suggests that, when a ‘door’ closes in your life, all you have to do is sit and wait while ‘windows’ fly open all around you. For most of us, that simply doesn’t happen. And when it doesn’t, you start getting paranoid, asking yourself: is it me? And that can ultimately be more damaging than never having been offered the platitude in the first place.
If I’d been given £1 for every time someone said those well-intentioned words to me a couple of years ago when an important door in my life slammed shut, I’d be considerably richer than I am now.
You know how – when you slam the front door shut – the whole house seems to reverberate with the noise, and it takes a few moments for the soundwaves to dissipate, the energy to calm and the house to resume its stillness?
I think it’s the same with us humans. When a door shuts, it’s important to take a moment to let the dust settle, and to calm the reverberations in your head. To take a moment to reflect, to re-connect with yourself, and to give yourself time to get used to the idea that that particular door – with whatever was behind it which mattered so much to you – is not going to open again.
Only then can you start to think about windows. First of all, which window would you like to open, and why? Is it the window that says ‘new relationship’? Or the one that says ‘new job’? Is it the one that says ‘prioritise my health’, or the one that says ‘some time for me’?
Once you’ve chosen your window – or at least, the one you want to open first – it might take some gentle coaxing to open it.
I had a window at home that was jammed firmly shut. I rattled it, thumped it, and even tried the telephone directory and sledgehammer trick, but nothing worked. In the end I gave up on it, and forgot about it. Six months later, when I tried to open that window again, it obediently slid open. It’s all a question of timing.
You see what I’m saying? If I could re-write that particular expression, I’d change it to ‘when one door closes, first find your window, and then you might have to wrench the darned thing open’. The fact is, unless you’re Sheryl Sandberg, fabulous job offers don’t usually simply flutter into your lap; you won’t find your perfect partner sitting on the sofa listening to Ken Bruce, and you won’t learn a new skill twiddling your thumbs. It takes some work from you. You need to ask yourself what you really want …. No, what you REALLY want. And then you need to work out a strategy for getting it.
Another platitude that makes me bristle is, ‘Don’t let the sun go down on an argument’. If I was writing a self-help book, I’d say ALWAYS let the sun go down on an argument! Why stay downstairs arguing into the night, when there’s a nice cosy bed waiting for you upstairs? And if you can’t resolve the argument, what then? Does one of you have to sleep sulkily on the sofa, or throw some things into a bag and flounce off into the night because you can’t let the sun go down on an argument?
No. Glance at your watch mid-argument, hold up your hand in a non-aggressive way and say, ‘How about it we leave it here, and pick up where we left off in the morning?’ Then go to bed and get a good night’s sleep – with maybe a cuddle thrown in. Mark my words, in the morning all the firepower will have drained out of your row; you’ll wonder what you’d been arguing about anyway; one of you will crack some eggs into a frying pan, and everything will be OK.
Platitudes perpetuate because most contain a grain of truth. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ can be true, depending on what the problem is, and who you choose to share it with. A problem shared can be a problem quadrupled if you share it with the wrong person, so step cautiously with this one. Talking about a problem with someone neutral, who is willing to actively listen and support you while you while you share what’s going on for you can be really helpful – but friends and family, no matter how much they love you, aren’t always the ones for this. They care about you, and it hurts them to hear something’s troubling you. They want things to be all right, so might be tempted to offer advice that isn’t right for you. Far better – if you can – to seek out someone you can trust to respect your confidentiality, who will listen and seek to understand your situation, who is disconnected from your social group.
Of all platitudes, the one I hate the most is, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Really?? Since when? You might come through whatever it is alive, but angrier, more cynical, and more aware of what deep hurt feels like than you were before. Which is not always enriching. Does that equal ‘stronger’? Not in my book.
What about military veterans, who return from war zones with physical injuries that eventually heal, and psychological ones that can never be repaired? These can morph into depression and PTSD and other mental health conditions that can be even harder to overcome than a known enemy. You might be alive, but your life (and sometimes the lives of those around you) has become a living hell.
Some events might make you more aware of what can go wrong in life, and what it feels like when that happens; valuable insights which could, I suppose, amount to gaining a certain wisdom. Others will rob you of your joie de vivre and your trust in people, leaving you disillusioned, heart-broken and defeated.
I’m thinking here particularly of abuse – of more or less any kind – in childhood. If you were brought up in a stable, abuse-free family setting, you drew life’s trump card. Your family gave you the gift of trust, and from that solid bedrock comes the ability to forge a path towards your goals, to form healthy relationships and eventually lead an independent adult life as a contributing member of society.
In the voluntary work I do now, supporting callers on the phone and email who are struggling to cope, I’ve been amazed by how many people I’ve spoken to who suffered abuse as children. From that moment on, their lives often seem to follow a depressingly predictable course.
A child builds their whole life on foundations of trust. When trust is torn away at a young age, it is hard – often impossible – to manufacture stability in your life, to find answers to why this happened to you, to find ways to make sense of it, and to find relief from the never-ending pain. As they grow older, a child might turn their anger inwards, and start to demonstrate self-destructive behaviour – self-harm, dangerous lifestyles, unwise friendship choices.
Onwards it goes from there. In adulthood, they might attempt to create a ‘normal’ life – a job, partner, children – and this will work for a while. But eventually the effort becomes too much, the demons erupt through the fragile surface of normality, and everything comes tumbling down. Addictions, homelessness, self-loathing, social isolation, mental health issues – these can all be manifestations of childhood abuse and neglect. A desperate howl of pain and despair. Sometimes a caller will look back over their life and see nothing but emotional wreckage. Yet – in my experience – they always seem able to pinpoint the start of the downward spiral to a traumatic event (or events) in their childhood over which they had no control, that remains vivid in their memory even many decades later, and despite endless attempts in a variety of ways to wipe them from the brain’s hard-drive. Sometimes only death can offer the longed-for relief and escape from the prison of emotional torment.
So, if you’re comforting someone in trouble, think twice before offering a platitude. It might be the right thing to say, it might not. It’s OK, actually, to say very little, and simply allow the person to offload while you hold the space. And sometimes, just being there, letting the person know you care – you REALLY care – and sharing a few silent moments together can be enough.