With the fluorescent lights becoming ever more unbearable, the teacher hummed on about something you can never avoid in a creative writing class: the importance of character. We read dense chapters on how everything is ultimately about the subjects of our story. We analyzed Tim O’Brien and Helena Maria Viramontes, Michael Ondaatje and Dave Eggers. We read about death and moths and war to identify a flat character as undesirable, stereotyped and clichéd — not surprising nor complex. We identify a round character, meanwhile, as desirable and capable of surprise — convincing and not clichéd.
This recent high school writing class is simply a small example of how clichés are stigmatized and taught to be universally avoided. Clichéd phrases that are, by definition, overused and vapid — such as “Every cloud has a silver lining” or “Don’t judge a book by its cover” — flow in and out of someone’s mind like oil on Teflon with no profound effect. To many, they are lip service and nothing more. This being said, to people dealing with mental health issues, time-old refrains can provide a temporary salve to feelings of hopelessness and despair. As a result, we shouldn’t exterminate them from our vernacular. Clichés may not have a place in story and character crafting, but they can play a role in something seemingly unrelated: mindfulness.
Take a simple moment from this school year. It was finals week before winter break; the air was frantic and giddy. I was taking a world history and geography exam, which I had all of second period to complete. As soon as I glanced over the multiple-paragraph-long text boxes to fill in for each question, my notoriously slow test-taking strategies set in. I worked all through second period, lunch and third period, with still no end in sight. I let my perfectionism and love for complicated sentences get the better of me, and the pressure was unbearable. Given that it was the middle of the school day, the only person I could turn to for solace in that moment was me. So I told myself a simple cliché, “This too shall pass,” and although I was still stressed and anxious, that phrase helped me focus on the fact I have gotten through much harder circumstances in the past and I would get through that exam, too. And I did.
According to Mental Health America, New Mexico has the second-highest prevalence of mental illness among teens in the 50 U.S. states. However, when this information is paired with guidance from the Center for Change saying that mindfulness practices help “to increase our ability to regulate emotions, decrease stress, anxiety and depression,” and helps us to focus and “observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment,” some reprieve may be found.
Mindfulness is one of a complement of therapeutic approaches, along with psychotherapy, pharmacology, and balanced nutrition and exercise, that support well-being. This being said, also according to Mental Health America, New Mexico has the second-lowest rate of access to care for teens among the 50 U.S. states, so therapy is often not something we can refer to at the flick of the wrist. This is where we need not a replacement but additional tools we can refer to at any given moment to cope and find comfort.
This is where clichés come into play. Mindfulness is about being present, aware and focused — not overwhelmed — and the tried-and-true words of a cliché offer a way to focus our attention on a comforting truism. Specifically, if we actually acknowledge that every cloud does in fact have a silver lining, or really pledge to not judge a book by its cover, just for a day or humoring moment — if we take the phrase seriously — we may find some authenticity and solace.
Some may say this clichés-for-mindfulness idea is a “fix” that doesn’t address the root of the issue. However, the suggestion is not that embracing clichés can solve mental health problems or take the place of other therapeutics. Rather, pondering and humoring the authenticity of clichés can be a small day-to-day, in-the-moment coping mechanism that creates more mental capacity for open-mindedness and sympathy. In other words, clichés provide an intermediary mental alleviation that may just be the diamond in the rough.