On Quotes


“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Except for spiders, car crashes, sharks, rape, drowning, terrorist attacks and death.

There is nothing wrong with fear. There is nothing wrong with being frightened, with being anxious and apprehensive. So long as that fear does not control you or limit you, there is nothing shameful about being afraid.

But there is something wrong with telling others after a crisis, to not be afraid. In a letter to the editor for the USA Today paper, Patrick Frank cites the previous quote and, referring to the Boston Marathon explosions, tells everyone to “not run from problems, but face them directly.”

It’s a cliche, for starters, and overused, tired, unapplicable cliche. This is the problem with many quotes–they don’t even apply. Especially during a time of crisis, such as in Boston after the marathon explosions, cliche quotes are used far too often in an attempt to rally, encourage, and inspire. They only thing those quotes do, however, is sound cliche.

In an article in Slate, author Luke O’Neil describes the annoyance and uncomfort he feels when strangers praise Boston as a town that can overcome the tragic explosions. Obama praised Boston as a “tough and resilient town,” to which O’Neil writes, “[These] expressions of Boston’s exceptionalism quickly went from inspirational to sometimes cringe-worthy. Sure Boston is tough and resilient, but opposed to where? Is there any city that we wouldn’t say as much about in the wake of something like this?”

In times of tragedy, quotes that are meant to inspire just appear vacant.

Quotes about failure are just as irritating, especially when they are untrue and unapplicable.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
― Paulo Coelho

That quote is so untrue, of course–there are so many situations that can prohibit a person from achieving his dream. Financial circumstances, personal problems and limited abilities are all factors that block a person from “achieving his dream.” This is not to say that all motivational quotes are terrible–only the ones that are cliche, cheesy, and generally wrong.

The problem with quotes is not that there aren’t good ones, it’s that they too often don’t achieve the purpose that they set out to achieve, or that they set unrealistic expectations. People rely too much on overused platitudes that don’t actually motivate/inspire/guide. My life will have problems, there are things I should be afraid of, I might not “achieve my dream”–and quotes that tell me the opposite, the untrue, are doing nothing but setting me, and us, up for failure.


  1. You forgot the most important one -” Beware of Granmothers on the warpath!!!”
    I have really enjoyed your articles and will miss them next year. Good Luck at UVA. See you in a week.
    Love, GM


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