Platitudes and Attitudes

Dear Ellie — When you go through a tough time in your life, people often line up to help. Their good intentions are really touching — but most of them also want to give you advice. The trouble is, much of their well-meaning advice sucks.

They say everything happens for a reason!

I’ve heard God never gives you more than you can handle!

You know, your attitude is everything!

Anyway, that’s what I heard when I was sick 20 years ago.  After a while, all that constant advice made me feel worse, not better. The way I saw it, everything doesn’t happen for a reason — it just happens, period. Also, people often get too much to handle, and I don’t think God has anything to do with it. And attitudes are something, not everything.

Life is complicated at times like this, and the advice is usually too simple and broad to be helpful. Besides, we all have our own way of handling problems, and we have to find our own crooked paths through the world.

My life has been as crooked as everybody else’s — full of dead ends and cul-de-sacs and teeth-gnashing (which is terrible for your jaw, believe me). But now and then, I’ve stumbled across stories or lessons that have been helpful to me. Here are two:

D-Day, courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt Library

D-Day, courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt Library

Once, a few years ago, I came across a saying that you should be kind to everyone you meet, since we are all fighting great battles. Maybe I was in a particularly receptive mood that day; I don’t know. But reading this was like running into a wall: It stopped me short and shook me deeply.

I knew I was fighting my own great battles and I knew now painful and difficult they were. But everyone else, too? I thought I was a sensitive and empathic person, but somehow, I’d failed to notice.

That idea of all of us in a private, painful struggle made me begin to look at others differently. What was behind their determined smiles, their noisy bluster, their impatience, even their occasional rudeness? I looked at them longer and tried to imagine. It didn’t matter what the struggle or battle was — you never know that much about others’ lives and hearts. What mattered was that I was trying to understand them a little more, trying to pry open my own closed mind and heart.

Two wolves, courtesy of

Two wolves, courtesy of

And then there was another equally simple story I heard recently. Oddly, it’s also about a battle. I’m reproducing it from the website for the Nanticoke Indian tribe (since American Indians so rarely get credit for anything good):

“One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

“He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“‘The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’ 

“The grandson thought about it for a moment, then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf wins?’

The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one that you feed.'”


Another simple story, another simple image. But it was meaningful to me.

I don’t think we have as much control over life as we want to believe — but I do think we have some. Over the course of a lifetime, we make hundreds of thousands, millions, who knows how many, infinitesimal decisions. And I do think those tiny decisions, those wolves we decide to feed, that empathy we can try to feel, can alter the direction of our lives.

As usual, I’ve managed to contradict myself in a few hundred words. First, I disparaged intrusive, simple advice, then I gave you a couple of points of simple advice that have worked for me. But you can take them to heart or discard them.

Just keep looking for better ways to live, though. It’s one of your responsibilities as the caring, thinking human being I know you’re going to be. Love you, Coco

P.S. I swore I wouldn’t be preachy, and I’m wondering if this sounds preachy. I hope not.





  1. Brette · January 14, 2016

    I love this. Both are so perfect.

  2. Melanie · January 14, 2016

    I’m sure it is very comforting to think everything happens for a reason, but my brain simply doesn’t work that way. I do wonder if people REALLY think that or if it just the sort of thing people say.

  3. Barb Fox · January 14, 2016

    The old Indian chief’s story can really make you pause and think about what you are doing with your life. A very valuable lesson…

  4. Roxanne · January 14, 2016

    Both of my wolves are tired. I wonder what that means.

  5. I’ve always loved that Native American story. So much truth.

  6. Jane Boursaw · January 14, 2016

    Not preachy at all, just wise advice. I love those two stories, and remember reading about the wolves in a Pema Chodron book. So very true and always timely.