Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Proverbs that go too far

A coworker has a sign up in her office that admonishes us to seize life. "Dance like no one is looking," it begins, and concludes, "Live each day as if it were your last."

Taking this literally is of course missing the point. If you knew today were literally your last day, it'd be a pretty joyless day, I bet. And you wouldn't be doing any of the things the person who penned the sign had in mind. But we all know what they really mean.

Almost all the proverbs that give us life advice are like this to varying extents. That is, they are all, all of them, simply wrong. They tell you to behave in a very unbalanced way that would be disastrous or misery-inducing. But they still have "a grain of truth" in them because, in a very simplistic, pithy way, they target one unbalanced way we tend to live, and try to nudge us away from it by citing the opposite, even-more-unbalanced attitude as a virtue.

That's why so many of these aphorisms have equal-but-opposite aphorisms. Look before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. Many hands make light work, but too many cooks spoil the broth. Life is what you make it, but que sera, sera. The pen is mightier than the sword, yet actions speak louder than words. Each one is true because it's intended not to be taken literally, but rather, contrasted to when you're going too far the opposite way.

Ultimately almost every single one of them could be replaced with variations on the bromide "Moderation in all things". If there's a question of how to behave, it's because there's not a single obvious answer (when there is, the question never comes up), and when there's not a single obvious answer, it's because two (or more) extremes need to be struck a balance between. The right answer is always in the middle, yet virtually every proverb points at one end or the other. Because in ten catchy words or fewer, it's hard to point at a vague middle. All you can do is hope that your proverb will be cited at the right time.

Too bad most people don't realize this and cite each of these proverbs as if they actually were intended to be true. Sometimes they have the opposite of the intended effect, being used to justify the imbalanced behavior that their opposites are intended to curb. Just don't think about it too hard. Don't look too closely.

No comments: