Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 22, 2024

Words of wisdom: keep calm and platitude on

By LILLIAN KAIRIS | November 13, 2014

I remember when I was in high school, and “Keep Calm and Carry On” became a thing. Like, a plastered-on-your-wall, written-on-your-sweaters, embroidered-on-your-pincushions level THING. One moment my peers were stressed and angsty, and the next they were placated, professing that everything will be okay. Keep calm and carry on, Lily. I really didn’t get it.

It wasn’t that I disliked the gratuitous cheesiness. Anyone who knows me today can testify to the contrary. I keep words of wisdom on laptop sticky notes, my friends make me motivational wall hangings and I own a sweater that reminds me to “Do All Things With Love.” I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a mushball. But in this situation, my mush just did not come through. “Keep calm and carry on” instilled as much drive in me as a swift “Go get ‘em!” and a punch to the arm. Which is to say, I wasn’t a fan.

But these days, as I skip through Hopkins with my “Do All Things With Love” sweater, subconsciously hoping that some random passerby will notice and smile, I’m reminded of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” situation of 2012. I’m reminded that inspiration is entirely subjective. Some people are warmed by the simple wisdom of “Keep Calm and Carry On,” others take pleasure in Taylor Swift lyrics and still others need 12-stanza poems to truly strike a chord.

It’s a hard concept for me to grasp as someone who writes. I want people to read what I’ve written and feel deeply moved, but I can’t really count on that. Sometimes, I spout off nonsense about metaphysical reality and make metaphors about jellyfish, and literally no one on earth is on the same page as me. Words are entirely person-specific in a way I didn’t really realize before.

Take A Place to Talk (APTT), for instance. APTT, the peer listening group I joined this semester, held its welcoming retreat a few weeks ago. During that time, the discussion ran rampant with thoughts and feelings and world views — all so wholly personal.

I’d never been around a group that was so open and honest about their own identities. It was enlightening. Case in point: early on in the retreat, we scribbled down adjectives that described us and quotes that explained how we tried to live our lives. We then traded the words-on-index-cards amongst each other, finding friends with common traits. What was truly fascinating for me was what resulted at the end. Once we’d all swapped to sufficiency, everyone explained the personal significance of the words and quotes they’d chosen. It was an introspective 10 minutes. And in this earnest, eloquent group, I think even “Keep Calm and Carry On” would’ve seemed to me like poetry.

One instance came pretty close. A fellow APTTer had written down as their quote, “Better than yesterday.” I remember my immediate judgment. To me, this sounded bizarre. Better than yesterday? Better how? Are you really changing that much, day to day? Were you really that sucky of a person, the day before? Is this some sort of competition? When the APTTer in question spoke up and explained the depth behind her quote, I was silenced.

“Better than yesterday,” to her, was about the perseverance to wake up every morning with hope, leaving your anxieties behind. It was about striving to improve and treat others well, no matter the outcome. My over-anaylsis proved to be the trivial part. She was nothing but heartfelt. To her, this quote meant something real, and that itself was meaning enough. I fault myself for trying to extract something more out of it.

The truth is, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. One kid’s poetic masterpiece is another’s played-out platitude. I say things like “Love yourself first” and “The Universe supports me” and “Kill them with kindness.” To a lot of people — or so I’ve been told — those words mean little. Sometimes the things I say sound convoluted or overly hippie or downright senseless. But that’s okay. I say them for myself, and for no one else.

And I’ve been noticing — everyone else does just the same. It’s something I didn’t really pick up on before — peoples’ universal fondness for inspiration. No matter how unsentimental a friend of yours is, I’m betting he or she likes to gain comfort from the human language, sometimes. Everyone does. I’m picking up on it, now — friends of mine chanting “this too shall pass” or “everything happens for a reason” or “don’t sweat the small stuff.” I listen and I understand, even if the lines hit hollow on my ears. They’re motivated, somehow, by these simple syllables, and that makes all the difference.

The other day I heard someone say, “Just keep swimming,” that line from Finding Nemo. It sounds trite. It sounds silly. It sounds like nothing more than a pop culture reference. But as the speaker in question passed by me, smiling to herself in a comforting sort of way, I realized that Disney Pixar was wiser than I’d given them credit for. Good ol’ Dory had it right — just keep swimming.


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