About seven years ago, a young guy named Kevin was working for me. Nice guy, funny, hard-working, but not necessarily the brightest star in the firmament. One day, I happened to bring up some of Shakespeare’s famous quotations and he kept replying (with a straight face), “Man, that Shakespeare was nothing but cliches.” I proceeded to explain that they actually weren’t cliches 400 years ago, when he came up with them, but the words didn’t make an impression. Kevin also said, “Ya, know those Beatles…what’s the big deal?” followed by, “And who the hell is Johnny Carson?” I rest my case.
Truth is, the very word, cliche is an insult to a concept whose only sin is that it’s a lasting truism. The stuff that’s false doesn’t stand the test of time and never gets promoted to cliche status. Maybe we need to come up with a more appropriate term…one that’s not insulting and invites the young and the inexperienced to learn profound truths and wisdom without having to...reinvent the wheel every generation. A cliche, in itself, though it strangely works every time.
When I was young, my mom, who was as my mentor and idol as well, gave me a small handful of gems which have not just stood me well but helped shape the way I run my life. Here’s the first one. You probably already know it…but do your kids???
The Harder I Work, the Luckier I get. This doesn’t require any sort of explanation so I won’t insult you with one. But to anyone who’s been on the planet a while, you know it’s true, seriously true. Sometimes you want to scream it in the ear of someone a bit younger than yourself, but the fact is…we’re just too old to have any valid answers. “Hey– You’re not stupid… you’re just old.” (Please note the quotes.) This is something that was recently explained to me. What a fun thing to hear!
When the Winds Fail…Take to the Oars. Yes, this is another one of Mom’s and its so simplistic that younger, much faster brains say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Big deal. So what?” It is, by definition, a cliche. But, oh baby…is it ever important. It has to do with not giving up….EVER. Do some of you out there, get what I’m talking about? Of course you do. It means, when everything…everything has turned to shit, you curse the sky and kick the fence post. But then, you get up and…(cliche alert) get back on the horse. Yeah, that’s the truth of life…for the winners that is. The quitters just think these words are a bunch of cliches.
To Thine Own Self, be True: This one’s so simple, it’d be real easy to skip over. Oh, sure I know that one. I get it… Are you really sure about that??? What it means is that we all have to bullshit at some points in our lives or more accurately some points during the day. But, if you can’t keep it straight in your head what’s up and what’s down, what is right… and what is wrong, you are in serious trouble. To survive, to thrive, you have to be straight with yourself. Otherwise you’re lost.
Here’s one you may not be familiar with. Steinbeck wrote it. I took it to heart: It’s a cliche, but it allowed me to be a somewhat kinder person than I otherwise would have been. Many grownups, particularly grownup men, were out to lunch when this one was posted. You Have to Be a Sucker for Someone. You have to believe in someone, you have to be willing to slide all the chips to the middle for someone, you have to be willing to be fooled by someone because….. Care to guess why? Because, if you’re never a sucker, if you never fully believe in someone, some thing, your heart is too hard to love or be loved. I’m a sucker for my wife. I’m a sucker (many times a day) for each of my dogs. I’m a sucker for most of my friends, with zero regrets. It’s worth it. Not being a sucker, never getting fooled ever, is not a life I’d care to live. Too harsh.
Glovey… Another one from my Mom. Man, she was something… This one’s a bit crass, but it has worked for me. For brief periods in my life I’d wander into relationships with people who were less than stellar. People whom I never would consider introducing to my folks or friends. One time, however, this did happen. It was during college. Mom was cool, I guess, but after this really nasty knuckle-dragging guy had left the house Mom said, ” If you take a white glove and plunge it in a pile of shit…the shit doesn’t get glovey.” That’s all she said. She let me figure it out. She was right, by the way. Choose wisely who you hang with.
Bridges Burned: Here’s a cliche I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard…or if you have, I bet you don’t know where it came from: “It’s Not the Bridges Burned That Bother Me, but the Ones That I’ve Never Crossed.” Derivation? An old 60s song by The Association. That one sentence, that one cliche has been a guiding star in my own life. Playing it safe, taking the safe or easy route, avoiding confrontation…guarantees you NOTHING. Life is going to follow you around as long as you’re alive and deal out good luck and bad. You can’t avoid it. Don’t be stupid, but life is, by definition, a game of chance. That’s where the fun is and that’s where the glory is. I would hate to come to the end of my life and think, “Damn….I shoulda gone for it.”
Capt. James T. Kirk: Whether you love him ( I do) or hate him, Bill Shatner is a walking cliche. But it works! Many of his ethical and leadership techniques which seeped slowly into my brain in high school and college…played out in the real word of the Air Force. They were Greek morality plays…in space. A quick one comes to mind: In civilian flying, you lose an engine…you look for a place to do a forced landing. In the military, you learn, if you flame-out…the prime directive is to get the plane away from the humanity below. Your life is secondary. They’re not joking… That’s the deal.
A second, seemingly silly thing I “learned” from Jim Kirk: Where your men are concerned, anything goes to save your men. Lie, cheat, steal, sucker-punch, whatever it takes. He displayed this many times but he was taken to task for it when he cheated on the “Kobiashi Maneuver.” It was a test that couldn’t be won. The decks were stacked so that it was impossible. Kirk flat-out cheated because cheating meant saving his men. Yeah, yeah, it’s a cliche, but when the chips are down sometimes those little morality plays are all you have to guide you. No regrets.
Last Cliche: (anybody yelling yaaaay?) This one goes back to my majoring in philosophy. Of all the umpteen thousand pages and hundreds upon hundreds of books I’ve read…this one comes to mind. It goes back to Zen Buddhism, a philosophy, not a religion…an extremely important distinction. Here we go. It’s soooo simple. If you think you have the answer…the one and only answer…you don’t. You will never have the complete answer. No one does. Life is a journey toward the truth. Conduct your own journey well… for that is what life is about. Life is not a destination point….it’s the path you take toward the destination.
P.S. Strangely, I feel more strongly and more seriously about these “silly cliches” than I do about most things. They work. They are diamonds, that have been polished to simple brilliance. And to end up with the very best cliche in the universe: The Golden Rule: Do Unto Others as you would have them do unto you. It’s such a simple sentence. And our usual reply is, “Yeah……but….”