Herald Journal Columns
May 23, 2005, Herald Journal

Figures of speech drive us all, but don’t believe everything you read

By LIZ HELLMANN

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. So, here I am, pondering my first editorial column as the new writer on the Herald Journal staff. The advice I have received so far is cliché and vague, at best.

I have been told to write about what I know. Well, what if that doesn’t leave very many options?

More advice includes writing about anything, but making it interesting so people will want to read it. Gee, thanks everyone.

And here I sit.

So back to my statement, or actually Charles Dickens’ statement. Granted, we don’t live in 18th century England, but I think he was on to something. Perhaps the best of times are the worst of times.

Let me explain, while I write about what I know. What do people love to talk about? Don’t say the weather. I don’t know if anyone actually likes talking about the weather, with the exception of people who are occupationally affected (farmers), or if they do it out of habit. This debate is still up in the air.

However, a comment on the weather, more often than not, has become the first thing out of someone’s mouth, “Well, it looks like rain.” It just pops out.

Which brings me to my next point, or actually back to my original point. People like to talk about bad things, i.e. the worst of times. Let’s go with the weather example.

If someone is out on a date, or meeting, or any other social activity in which they don’t know the person very well, a natural disaster can become their best friend.

Okay, maybe it doesn’t have to be that extreme. But if the date takes place in the aftermath of Tornado Charlie that just ripped through a sleepy little suburb, there promises to be numerous stories and astonishing happenings to relate.

On the other hand, a storybook summer complete with blue skies and the kind of clouds you can see animal shapes in, with just enough rain to keep things growing offers little or no conversational value. “Great weather we’re having.” End of story.

I’m not saying people don’t appreciate good weather, but they sure do seem to have a lot of fun talking about the bad weather.

This concept can also apply to our everyday lives. The “grass is always greener” type of sentiment seems to be alive and kicking. Having recently graduated from college, I am familiar with listening to complaints.

Drawing on comments I have heard, I think college is definitely a best of times, worst of times situation. Just think about it. Thousands of young adults are carted away from their nice, clean homes where they are generally fed, kept warm, and best of all, live rent-free.

Suddenly, they are plopped in an unfamiliar place, where they must fend for themselves while attending lectures, finishing papers, and studying for exams. This schedule must be maintained while they adjust to living in a 20-foot-square cement block, commonly referred to as a dorm, with a roommate they are certain rarely baths and never sleeps.

The icing on the cake is that these young victims, excuse me, people, are paying for this experience and will likely continue to pay for it long into their adult lives. Now that is a special arrangement worthy of the ‘worst of times’ category.

Despite all of these events, college is often recalled as one of the most memorable, in a good way, times of people’s lives. Is hindsight 20/20, or do people simply forget what it was like?

Am I, on the brink of starting my professional career, about to realize that this endeavor will be worse than the aforementioned conditions? If so, please don’t tell me. Ignorance is bliss.

The communication theorist in me has an explanation of what all this means. Let’s re-cap. People like to complain about bad weather, but are left virtually speechless if it is 75 and sunny. There is a general feeling of the-grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side, as illustrated by the whining college students and the reminiscing alumni.

While people seem to enjoy when things are going well, they like to talk about when things are going poorly. Is it possible we find our motivation in picking out the bad things in our lives to push us forward in search of the great American dream? Or does our griping make us feel like we are better people for withstanding such adverse conditions? After all, perseverance builds character.

Whatever the reason, people seem to be less fascinated with the good, and more content dwelling on the bad and the ugly. Could the worst of times be the best of times? Or does the worst of times make the best of times worth the effort?

I guess the answer lies in how each person views their “times.” My advice is to not worry so much about the worst of times that you miss the best of times. Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses on the road to the next natural disaster.

May your grass not always be green and not all your dreams come true at once.

As for me, I never complain.