Duck-Billed Platitudes

American Psycho was on TV last night. Right before Patrick Bateman killed the homeless man, he told him that if he changed his attitude, he’d be able to get out of his situation.

This was a fine piece of synchronicity as I’d recently had a disagreement with a white, middle class, privately educated, New Age Guru-type who thought victims of abuse brought it on themselves and that they spoke about it as a way of creating drama and getting attention, yet preciously nurtured his own ‘Ancestral Wound’, to wear like the badge he accused abuse survivors of sporting. Metaphysician, heal thyself.

His response to my telling him he was wrong was instant butt-hurt sarcasm, which I felt was a far from enlightened approach, and more the kind of thing someone like… oh, I don’t know… Patrick Bateman might say. Because it is this very attitude, this borderline psychopathic lack of empathy and understanding that marks out a pseudo-spiritual person who, instead of imparting wisdom, spouts the soundbites of quackery I like to call Duck-Billed Platitudes. You know the kind of thing: ‘Leap into the Unknown and the Universe will catch you.’ ‘As one door closes, another one opens.’ ‘Change your attitude and you won’t be homeless or murdered by a Yuppie.’

To react defensively to being questioned is a sign of both a fragile ego, and the fear, if not knowledge, that you are wrong. I’ve seen this reaction in followers of conventional religions and alternative spirituality, as well as in everyday work and social situations. It displays a wilful lack of self-awareness, and virtually negates the right to advise someone else on how to live their life, let alone take money for doing so.

Lest you think I’m an across the board naysayer, I’ll lay my (Tarot) cards on the table. I have never followed a conventional religion but for a good ten years or so I was heavily into the Alternative Spirituality/Wicca/Pagan scene. Many of my best friends are still active in this area, and whilst I haven’t entirely left it all behind, I’m no longer so naively accepting, and temper everything I encounter with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ve met many healers, teachers, gurus, psychics, Magickians, witches etc., and can sort the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly.

What tipped me over the edge from blanket acceptance to semi-rational thinking (no one is fully rational, despite what they may think) came in two parts. The first was the advice of a Tarot reader who told me that my particular problem had a practical solution rather than a spiritual one. I wasn’t ready to hear that, so ignored him and continued to wait for something magical to save me. It never came. The second was when I was reading a bestselling book whose central premise was that to live in the ‘now’ was somehow the answer to everything. It went on to explain that if you consider where you are at this exact moment, without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, all is well.

And it was. I was comfortable in my bed reading a book. No one was harassing me, I wasn’t in pain, and yet… The chances are if you’re reading a book, at that exact moment, things are relatively fine and dandy. You might be wrongly imprisoned, living on the street, or in hospital, but if you’re physically reading a book you’re probably not being tortured, beaten, or operated on at the same time.

But then something clicked. Knowing what’s in your future isn’t the same as worrying about a possible future that may never come to pass. I might be nicely tucked up in bed now but in a few hours I would be at a job I hated. A job that paid me just enough to survive, but not enough to get ahead. A job that kept me from what I really wanted to do. A job where I wasn’t valued in any way, where the menial tasks it involved were presented as something beyond my capabilities, where I was sneered at for having different interests from everyone else there and treated like a trouble maker for not fitting in and expecting them to adhere to the terms of my contract.

Then I realised. The faux-spirituality I’d been clinging to was bullshit. The Universe wasn’t waiting to shower me with abundance the moment I took a leap of faith. If walked out of my job, I’d leave with no references, so no chance of getting a new one, thereby leaving me with no money to pay rent or bills, and on the fast track to homelessness.

I was angry. All this time I’d wasted hoping that my life would get better simply because I wanted it to, all the gut-wrenching despair I had to suppress or else acknowledge that, in my airy-fairy, New Age set of rules, my life was shit because that’s all I deserved and all the creative projects I wanted to work on should be thrown in the trash because the Universe hadn’t wanted them to date, so probably never would.

Duck-Billed Platitudes are a crutch, a distraction from the problems of the real world. To hide behind spurious spiritually is a fearful head-in-the-sand approach that stems from victim blaming; i.e. those people are suffering because they deserve it, If I’m good, if I pray, if I trust the Abundant Universe it won’t happen to me. But bad things do happen to good people just as good things regularly happen to bad people.

The other side of the coin is the justification of privilege. The insistence that ‘I’ve done well in life because I worked hard.’ Never mind the education, the rich parents. It has always been the case that the poorest people are the hardest workers but when you earn a few pounds per hour, there aren’t enough hours in the day to become rich.

There is good spirituality though. It is the kind that nurtures, the kind that doesn’t judge, the kind that doesn’t put itself on a pedestal. It is welcoming and inclusive, and when its ideas are challenged, it takes the challenges on board to correct where it is misguided. And most of all, it offers practical help in practical situations rather than empty words from an empty soul.