The Trouble with Generalizations

I will start this posting off with the humorous, but true, quote, “Most generalizations are false, including this one.”

But, even though generalizations are common, and mostly easy to make, we hear them all the time.  We hear quotes, many of them about life.  And we try to apply them to our lives, only to find that often there are pieces missing.  Things like, “Life is what you make of it.”  Sounds good.  Feels good.  Even feels good to say it.  But, it doesn’t always apply to all people at all times.

This is not to say these sayings are entirely false, or without merit.  I’m merely pointing out that they do not answer all of life’s problems or situations.  I like the, “Problems are just opportunities in work clothes.”  Makes you want to get out your hammer and change some things for the better, doesn’t it?  Well, unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, is it?

Why do generalizations, especially those about ‘life’, often fail us?  This is an interesting question.  In order to answer this I must assert a few generalizations – which was what you were expecting, right?

I believe generalizations fail because they only apply to some situations, and some people, and not to every situation or every person.  In other words, they are presented as general facts that apply to all things, but are really only applicable to specific people, times, or situations.

For example, when someone is down, facing financial disaster, marital disaster, loss of a loved one, etc… and we tell them, “Chin up,” it really doesn’t do the receiver much good, does it?

Generalizations fail because we want simple answers to complex things.  We want to ‘fix’ things.  We want everyone to be well, and do well.  We want everyone to be happy.  These are not bad things, but it’s going to take a lot more than a few good quotes or sayings to change things.

This doesn’t mean we can’t make things better, or help people.  But, it does mean that the quaint, “This too shall pass,” is probably not going make things better.  It’s not the sayings or generalizations that are wrong.  It’s our misunderstanding of the complexity of people’s lives that is missing the mark.

We could make generalizations about marriage and divorce, but they would mostly be wrong.  Why?  Because each marriage, each relationship, each divorce is different, and the people involved are different.  While there may be some basic common themes that apply to most, those are rarely the core issues in any given situation.  We want simple answers to complex situations, and there are simply none.

So, what is the point?  The point is we need to stop trying to fix everyone’s problems, and realize there may only be a few things we can really do:

  1. Love them
  2. Pray for them
  3. Don’t be critical or judgmental

Does this mean we are helpless?  Hardly, for these three things are powerful, perhaps, more powerful than we imagine.


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