Sunday, 12 November 2006

You Can Think of Stars As Porchlights If You Want To, But You Might Get Severely Lost

Some months ago, I needed to buy a sympathy card, so I stepped into a nearby drugstore, where they had an entire aisle of cards for all occasions. And upon looking over their section of sympathy cards, I was taken aback by their collective atrociousness. Some seemed designed to make the bereaved feel worse, or perhaps just distracted from grief with the resulting bemusement.

One said, "When you see the stars tonight…" on the outside, and then on the inside continued, "Don't think of them as stars. Think of them as porchlights guiding your loved one home." The card was covered with glitter, some of which was clustered in star-like arrangements. That was the most spectacularly bad one, but a number of the others were also nearly as mawkish, although unfortunately for the sake of this review (if fortunately in every other respect) my mind has wiped them from my memory. They couldn’t, it seemed, just read, "We're thinking of you in this difficult time," or "In deepest sympathy". They had to hold forth about "lifted hearts", use cheesy metaphors about seashells and rainbows, discourse Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-style about the importance of inner strength, and express pseudo religious sentiment that it seemed to me would read as asinine to the religious and the non-religious alike. Oh, and there were sympathy cards for the loss of a pet. I didn't even open those. I’m sure my bursts of appalled laughter were already attracting enough attention to the sympathy card section.

There are sympathy e-cards that will make you wish you were the one who had died. I don’t have the fortitude to actually read them, but if you’re feeling masochistic today, be my guest.

I suppose this is what we get when we, in effect, hire others to express our thoughts and feelings. But at the same time, it seemed to me that the greeting card manufacturers really ought to do better than this. The cards were almost uniformly lovely and elegant in appearance – why wouldn’t a company expect the same level of competence from their writers as from their graphic designers?

In fairness, some allowance must be made for the pressure of market forces. The greeting card writers are probably expected to re-invent the wheel on a daily basis, to be novel and original, to produce something that will stand out from the other cards on the shelf. They also have a wide audience to cater to, and presumably there are bereaved people out there who will be comforted by thinking of stars as porchlights rather than as the huge balls of burning hydrogen and helium that they actually are. And it’s up to us, the purchasers, to choose cards suitable for our needs and tastes, and to vote with our dollars on the suitability of the cards on offer.

However, even once I’ve made these allowances, I still think the greeting card writers make the same mistake as so many of us do when trying to be sympathetic and a comfort to others. We try too hard. We say too much, when we should be listening. We make efforts to be original and memorable when we should just be simple and restrained. Grief is, after all, as old as time, and there’s not much point in trying to come up with the ultimate consolation phrase at this late date. And then, at worst, there’s the pitfall of making one’s own need to be helpful, to be the MOST HELPFUL AND SUPPORTIVE PERSON EVER, the fulcrum of the one’s attempts to help someone, with usually disastrous results (i.e., the mouth shifts into high gear and the ears shut down).

I think the next time I need a sympathy card, I’ll make one myself, or buy a note card that has attractive art on the outside and is blank within. People generally understand that the gaffes and the feet in the mouth are born out of kind and sincere if misguided desire to help, and an ill-chosen card could certainly be one of those mistakes. But a collection of these poorly written cards on display in a store, unsoftened by the kind intentions of anyone who cares about you, are merely impersonally offensive, like an undertaker who thinks making worm jokes is a good way to take the edge off. No, that’s not a fair comparison, but you get the point. I may make mistakes when trying to support someone I care about, and I understand when those who try to help me do the same, but I expect hired professionals to be competent and to produce appropriate results, and when they aren’t, I shall take my $4 elsewhere. And my discourse on the pricing of greeting cards will have to wait until another time;-)

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