A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 9 February 2009


Continuing the exploration of my mother's commonplace book, I'm struck by how fond she was of writing out proverbs and aphorisms from many different world cultures. These proverbs are from the Chinese:
A man thinks he knows, but a woman knows better.
If fortune smiles - who doesn't? If fortune doesn't - who does?
Armies are maintained for years, to be used on a single day.
In misfortune, gold is dull; in happiness, iron is bright.
If you fear that people will know, don't do it.
Long visits bring short compliments.
The highest towers begin from the ground.
Free sitters at the play always grumble most.
Gold is tested by fire; man, by gold.
No image-maker worships the gods. He knows what stuff they are made of.
It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all possible doubt.
In our haste to deal with the things that are wrong, let us not upset the things that are right.
God gave man one mouth and two ears, so why don't we listen twice as much as we speak?
There is much truth in all of these, I think. As there is in this gypsy proverb:
If people do not know much do not laugh at them, for every one of them knows something that you do not.
In a similar vein, St John of the Cross wrote:
Do not despise others because, as it seems to you, they do not possess the virtues you thought they had: they may be pleasing to God for other reasons which you cannot discover.
Before I leave with reluctance this treasured cache of proverbs and aphorisms, I really must quote just 2 more. Plutarch quotes Simonides as saying that he never repented that he held his tongue, but often that he had spoken; and Confucius, coming from quite a different tangent, wisely states: He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes. He who does not remains a fool for ever.
This final quotation is a poem which was handed to a regional organiser of Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity, by a woman who had just become homeless. Living as she did in a remote rural spot, she had turned to the only person whom she thought would help her in her predicament - the local vicar. He was unable to give her even the most elementary advice, but promised to pray for her. Her reaction is expressed in this poem:

I was hungry
and you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger.
I was imprisoned
and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release.

I was naked
and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.
I was sick
and you knelt and thanked God for your health.
I was homeless
and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God.

I was lonely
and you left me alone to pray for me.
You seem so holy, so close to God.
But I am still very hungry
and lonely
and cold.
Devastating stuff.


The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Here's another old proverb that those in need know all too well, while those who could help too often forget: Action speaks louder than words.

Sometimes, the truest measure of genuine faith is a willingness to grab a shovel and dig out those who've fallen into one of life's holes. Later, if the effort has left you with an aching back, you can say a meaningful and heartfelt prayer of thanks while the newly rescued—whose humanitarian sensibilities, oddly, never needed refreshing— brings you the rubbing liniment and asks if you need an aspirin and maybe a pillow for your head.

Bella said...

Devastating and confronting - empty words are not only reserved for politicians. "Help" that harms, or harm disguised as help. Hope for a day when shelters and aid are provided by organisations that don't offer empty platitudes and a desire to indoctrinate in their help. I think I have listened too much to Mr Hitchens, particularly his harsh criticism of Mother Thereasa and her "help" which indirectly sentenced millions of the poor to death from aids etc...
Oh dear, with age cynicism creeps in...but I still grip onto a good dose of idealism (just alot less as time goes by) :)

Thanks for another thought-provoking post.


The Solitary Walker said...

We have been shocked here in the UK about the bush fires in Victoria, Bella. I hope you are far from the flames.

Bella said...

Thanks SW, I am a long distance from the fury of the fires but the impact is felt throughout the country. Many people died in their cars trying to escape - The TV has a constant stream of the destruction and whilst watching it I am provoked into reminiscing a poem I learnt at school - "I love a sunburnt country...for floods and fire and famine, she pays us back threefold...her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me..." Dorothea Mackellar 1904...its taken me a few decades but I now can relate to this poem and the Australian landscape -

Grizzled always writes great comments!!

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I too love those blogposts and comments from our friend, the Grizzled Scribe!

Talking of cynicism, last night we went to see the latest Sam Mendes film 'Revolutionary Road'. Amongst other things it's about the loss of idealism. A greater film than 'American Beauty', I thought - still distinctly the Mendes style, but more mature, more flowing and more profound. He's absolutely brilliant at those embarrassing, round-the-table, dinner scenes...

Bella said...

I was debating whether to see 'Revolutionary Road' - thanks, will go and see it...particularly as my theme for the moment is cynicism...On a recent and frequent re-watch of the film 'three colours red' - the cynicism/loss of ideals of the judge character played by Jean-Louis Trintignant is so excruciatingly brilliant.

Now I think I am well and truly off the track of your original post and probably commenting way too much after it was posted. :)

The Solitary Walker said...

Fine by me to go off track. I've been doing that all my life.

The '3 Colours' Trilogy is superb, isn't it? I have a great little critical book about it on my shelf by Geoff Andrew in the BFI Modern Classics series.

'Revolutionary Road' is certainly worth seeing. Kate Winslet's performance is stunning. The film's had mixed reviews - I think some critics found it unredemptive and bleak. But I like bleak!