Lest Fools Should Fail
True wisdom knows
it must comprise
as a compromise,
lest fools should fail
to find it wise.
- Piet Hein
My good friend Mary wrote a post today about proverbs she is dying to use one day, and asks if her readers have any they've been wanting to actually drop into a conversation.
I think we all do that - either before or after important conversations, we think through what we either should have said or could say. And of course we either didn't or won't because we're just not that clever. Ah, to be Winston Churchill or Oscar Wilde or Benjamin Disraeli or - well, any character in a sitcom ... and have the right words tumble from our mouths as if spilled by God.
We've all experienced what Diderot called "L'Esprit de L'Escalier" - "Stairwell Wisdom". Wishing our minds and our mouths had not betrayed us at the precise moment we needed them most. Walking away going, "God! I should have just said ...", and knowing that never, ever in your life will circumstances align themselves so precisely that the clever retort you came up with in the car on the way home will ever see the light of day.
You will never witness your adversary's jaw drop, his mouth trying in vain to form words but unable to, defeated by the blinding force of your wit. You'll never know what it's like to deliver the perfect line, let it sit in the stunned silence, then turn on your heel and walk at a measured pace, head high, towards the door as one by one all the people around begin to applaud - slowly at first, but building into a crescendo until you turn the doorknob, walk out into the stairwell, let the door close silently behind you, then jump into the air, pumping your fist and going "YEAH!" (which would have been so not cool to let people see you do).
Most of us don't have brains that work that quickly. So we're better off to have a bunch of general-purpose proverbs on hand that - should the occasion arise - we can toss into a conversation to make ourselves seem - well, if not wise, at least relatively well-read.
The problem is, most proverbs have slid into the realm of the banal and hackneyed. You're not going to sound too clever if you caution someone that "A stitch in time saves nine!" or "Better safe than sorry!"
On the other hand, you start to sound pretty damn pompous if you casually throw around crap like "Well, as Diderot said ..." because really, who knows who Diderot is, and it becomes painfully clear that you've either spent too much time memorizing the words written by a relatively obscure French philosopher/encyclopaedist in his Paradoxe sur le Comédien ... or that you spend way too much time Googling relevant quotes for some pissy little blog entry.
So the trick is, finding a proverb or maxim that sounds smart, isn't overused, and is also relatively homespun. And actually, I have one, which you can only steal if we are unlikely to end up in the same conversation.
I first had this said to me by my good friend Dr. Walter Learning, an ancient and wise icon of Canadian theatre. (I should note that Walter is not a real doctor, in the sense that if your appendix ruptures on a mid-Atlantic flight and he's your only alternative, you're pretty much fucked. He will, however, make your final hours a little more bearable, unless you mention golf, in which case you can expect to spend your last moments on Earth bored to tears. Walter is a Doctor of Philosophy, which means he feels perfectly qualified to spend all his time dispensing philosophic thoughts without a prescription.)
I can actually attribute two wisdoms to Walter, one of which changed my life. The life-changing wisdom happened when I was casting about for something to do after walking away from a relatively stable career at CBC Radio. I'd been in Toronto for the weekend, seeing a couple of shows with my pal Davey, and I got back to a phone call from Walter.
"What plays did you see?" he asked.
I mentioned a brilliant one-man show, part of a series that is very well known in Canadian theatre. We'd seen it in a packed, 800-seat theatre.
"What did you think of it?" he asked. I hesitated.
"Wait," he said. "I'll tell you what you thought of it. You thought it was interesting and entertaining and well-written and funny and well-performed and a good night at the theatre, but you also thought 'Hey ... you know what? That's not so special. I can do that ...!'
He was right. I'd enjoyed the show, but doing a one-man show felt like something that pretty much dropped into my wheelhouse. If this guy was making kabillions of dollars doing this, why couldn't I?
"Want to know the big difference?" Walt asked. Of course I did.
"The difference is ... he fucking DID it."
Exactly. I was talking about doing something; this guy had actually fucking DONE it. Well. Didn't that light a fire under my ass? So if you're looking for pithy and wise, that's pretty good right there. But it isn't all Walt has given me over the years.
A long time ago, we were out on the golf course, and I suppose it's just possible I may have said something a tad derogatory about the game he was having that day. It's possible, in fact, that I set up a line, he walked through the door, and I delivered the closer so perfectly it poleaxed him and left everyone else howling with laughter. It .. could have happened this way. Just saying it's conceivable.
Walter drew himself up, gathered the shreds of his dignity around him, shot me a calm, measured look with a half-smile and said "My son ... we have a saying in Newfoundland. "Time is longer than rope." Think on that." And he carried on with his game.
"Time is longer than rope." I pondered it.
In those circumstances, it was definitely a gentle threat, a warning along the lines of "Revenge is a dish best tasted cold." But since then I've attributed a rainbow of meanings to those five words.
At its heart, I think this maxim is a call for patience - that Time is longer (more powerful) than anything man can devise (rope). So - to me, at least - it speaks to the need to accept bad circumstances for a while in the sure and certain knowledge that Time will defeat them. Time need not act alone in this, but nothing - no good, no evil, no right, no wrong, no trivial matter, no critical decision - can withstand the inexorable pressure of the slow rotation of the earth on its axis and its journey round the sun.
I have used this proverb in circumstances where a friend's despair over a situation grew oppressive. I find it calms me to say it, to remind myself that as crappy as things can get - and they can get crappy indeed - nothing we are experiencing can withstand Time.
In many ways, I'm an arrested adolescent. But in at least one regard, I've grown more mature, and that is in how patient I can be.
I really do believe that time is longer than rope, and knowing it is so makes me a happier person.