Against Platitudes

Most of us have gifts that can become faults when taken too far or brought into the wrong context. For me, a combination of seriousness, immersion, excitement, and brazen determination has allowed me to do things, both alone and with others, that never would have happened otherwise. Books, translations, dramatic productions, literary journals, literary events, musical projects, moving to Hungary and learning Hungarian—all of this took considerable enthusiasm and stubbornness. I never wanted to be selfish about it; I wanted to take others into account. Most of the time, people appreciated my dedication and relied on my judgement, even when I was treating the project as the most important thing on earth. Even when I pestered them repeatedly.

But there’s a recurring mistake I make every 8-10 years or so: I get excited about something (happily) and become temporarily insistent and impatient (not so happily). The latter part can throw people off and upset them. I see my mistake promptly, but it is done.

Anyone who knows me can picture this; when I was younger it happened frequently. After I hit forty, it happened three significant times: once in 2005 or so, once in 2015, and once this year (I am not going into details). These stand out because of their importance to me. There may have been smaller instances too, but nothing that reached this pitch.

The two previous times, I talked about the situation to a few carefully chosen people—people with no connection to those involved. Their advice was usually unhelpful (if not downright confusing), along the lines of “So-and-so isn’t worth your time and attention.” That seems to be the default response these days: labeling others as toxic or, at best, “not worth your time.” But it’s just an escape; it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. When a misunderstanding happens, we usually have something to do with it. It isn’t necessarily all our fault; no good comes from complete self-blame. But some sort of fault is there. Also, others have dignity; they don’t deserve to be called “not worth” someone’s time. Everyone is worth someone’s time. That does not mean that everyone has time for everyone.

I had my part in this. It seems that things go wrong when I want something not for a project, but at least partly for myself (and especially when I show any kind of hurt or disappointment). This isn’t because it’s wrong to want something for myself. Rather, others aren’t necessarily prepared for this, and I am not very good at conveying both clearly and gently that something is important to me. Also, others are not obligated to do anything just because it’s important to me; they may feel pushed (just as I feel pushed sometimes). It is hard to express a wish or need without seeming demanding and controlling. I understand this well; I recoil at subtle and not-so subtle personal demands and manipulation.

The ideal approach would be to state that it is important to me, but then let go of it and let the other person do whatever he or she wants. Take away all “shoulds,” take away any rush or urgency (unless there is a real deadline), remove them even internally, and go on with life. This is extremely hard to do, especially in our online hyper-connected world, never mind our culture of entitlement. But it can be done.

People do like to do nice things for others, after all, but they like to do them freely. I do too. The problem is that it’s so hard to ask for anything at all, or convey that it means something, without having it come across as a demand.

But even when you express yourself generously and briefly, you can be misunderstood. As soon as you bring yourself into the picture, people can perceive you as pushy or worse. Or, at the other end of things, your words may go unnoticed because you were so gentle about them.

In the end, how others react is less important than how I handle things. Yes, their reaction is important too. Others’ responses reflect my actions at least somewhat—and I don’t want to bother or hurt anyone. But even if I were perfect, which I will never be, misunderstandings will happen. I cannot always prevent or fix them.

I was thinking about this yesterday when reading Camus’ “The Guest” with my students. In the story, set in Algeria, the schoolmaster Daru is handed an Arab prisoner (accused of murdering his cousin) and instructed to hand him into the authorities. Daru, who lives between two worlds (being of French origin but an Algerian native) does not want to do this. He ends up giving the prisoner a free choice (and the prisoner chooses to walk in the direction of the authorities, to turn himself in). When Daru returns to the classroom, he sees scrawled on the blackboard the message, “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.”

We talked about how even though we are fortunately not in situations where our decisions cost us our lives, the story is true for us too; we can never guarantee that our actions will be understood. People might take them as their opposite. This does not mean that they don’t matter. They matter, not because of how others respond, but because they shape us.

In all three situations mentioned earlier, I did not say a single bad word about the others involved (neither before, nor during, nor after the conflict), did not descend into gossip, and took a serious look at my own part. I tried to reconcile, and succeeded in part, over time.

But where my previous “bad advisors” may have been slightly right was this: It isn’t that the others weren’t worth my time, or otherwise defective; rather, they weren’t in a position to meet my needs, no matter how small or big, temporary or lasting. They had their own lives, worthy in themselves, not really overlapping with mine.

Sometimes my needs are so simple, a tiny gesture can make me happy for weeks or longer. But that isn’t the point. People have their radius of attention and are wary of expanding or overpacking it, because there isn’t time. This I understand well. There’s so much that can wear us out and take our focus away. I too have to limit my focus. I have so much to do and also have to make more room for my life. By “my life” I mean not only my work and projects, but rest, health, and people close to me.

Just look at this day. We had the day off for the March 15 holiday commemorating the Revolution of 1848. I have spent most of the day mulling over the questions of this blog post. It has done me good, but how much else there is to do too.

The mulling, too, is both a gift and a fault. I am good at looking at myself when things go wrong, not to berate myself, but to sort things out and put them in perspective. A person can do much worse than this. But I spend too much time on it. I wouldn’t call it neurotic—neuroticism repeats itself, whereas this moves toward understanding or peace—but still, it’s a bit too much. Also, it’s futile; I could double the time spent, and it would do nothing for the resolution. Sometimes answers really do come when you finally forget the question, as Csenger Kertai suggests in his poem “Dokkolás” (“Docking”). I believe that this will be the case here. Giving it a rest, a true rest, a full rest, will be the best gift, not only to the others, but to me. That in itself may seem a platitude, but it isn’t. Rest is profound and difficult. And needed.

The photo of the Hautes Plaines (“High Plains”, Arabic: الهضاب العليا, in northern Algeria) is courtesy of Wikipedia.

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  1. Admirable reasoning.
    And how little we come across it at the moment. If you pass this on to your students then there is hope.


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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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