Wise old sayings, my family was and is replete with them. What, for heaven’s sake, would we have put on our 1960s dorm room posters without wise old sayings! We repeat them, rehearse them and believe them. They make our discourse colorful and interesting.
Charles Dickens is perhaps one of my favorite writers of all time. Smart-smart-smart with the King’s English. In the opening paragraphs of “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens is playful with a literal twist on an old saying:
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country is done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
The deadest piece of ironmongery? What a turn of words! And, I agree with him: The wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile. And the wise old sayings.
But, me being a wordsmith and all, I often notice how wise old sayings tend to fall into three categories: true, depends on what you mean and not true. So, my unhallowed hands are always wanting to point, and tinker. And disturb. Wise old sayings often sacrifice clarity and sometimes even accuracy for the sake of poetry. So, I have long been fascinated with wise old sayings that aren’t true. Or at least only true depending on what exactly you mean. Here are examples.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Uh, sometimes. For a while. I’d agree that missing/longing for someone in his or her absence is an important aspect of growing love. But, strictly speaking, this wise old saying isn’t true. More times than not, absence teaches the heart to withdraw. Not to need. And, finally, to close. A crucial aspect of growing, nurturing and maintaining love is proximity.
Time heals all wounds. Uh, sometimes. More accurately stated, time can be an ally in healing in two important ways. First, time can allow us to settle down, to be less emotional, to be more objective. Second, time can provide a useful perspective, and perspective can allow us to find meaning in our wounds. But, strictly speaking, this wise old saying isn’t true. It is not time that heals wounds; rather, rigor, intention, consciousness and damn hard spiritual work is what heals wounds. The only way to heal grief is to grieve. Sometimes time provides perspective. But other times time merely abscesses our suffering, making it harder than ever to do the work of our suffering consciously.
Actions speak louder than words. Unmitigated falsehood. If you mean that words without congruent actions are meaningless words, then say that. But no way do actions speak louder than words. Words are equally loud and sometimes louder than actions. Without words, I might not have the slightest idea what your actions mean.
It is better to give than to receive. Not so fast. Learning how to graciously, gratefully and humbly receive is, for most people, the more difficult life lesson. Or, as my mentor once said, “It is better to give than to receive … It’s also a helluva lot easier.” I think this wise old saying is trying to admonish us not to be selfish. But it overstates its case. The deeper truth is a paradox: To be willing to receive is a gift we give; to be willing to give is a gift we receive.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Nope. Look up “beauty” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Beauty is ontic. Meaning, if I can look at it and not notice that it’s beautiful, than the only valid conclusion is that I’m suffering from a debilitating spiritual blindness. In the big picture, I don’t get to decide what is and is not beautiful. The only decision left to me is whether I’m willing to notice beauty when beauty reveals itself.
Honesty is the best policy. I prefer this wise old saying: “If you’re always honest because ‘Honesty is the best policy,’ then your honesty is corrupt.” See, truth-telling is often a much more complicated issue, not to mention rigorous moral deliberation than “always and in every case articulate the facts.” Too many times I’ve watched people advance great cruelties, humiliations and other injustices all the while disguised as “being honest.”
When it comes to wise old sayings, we gotta stay on our toes.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.