Commencement 2010: Life is not a bowl of cherries

As June’s new graduates get bombarded with aphorisms, author Julian Baggini reconsiders the wisdom of these familiar sayings

An almost universal law of folk wisdom is that every proverb has an equal and opposite proverb. So, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Then again, it’s never too late. Great minds think alike, but one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Two heads are better than one, but too many cooks spoil the broth.

Such oppositions don’t mean that the aphorisms cancel each other out. Rather, each saying captures only part of the truth. Aphorisms can trick us, through their wit and brevity, into thinking we’ve grasped a deep thought. But it’s important, once in a while, to examine the wise words that we sometimes parrot unthinkingly. Wisdom can mutate into folly when it is repeated without thought or reflection.


QUE SERÁ, SERÁSongwriter Ray Evans (1915–2007)

In 1956, Doris Day first sang a song whose title would become one of the most familiar sayings in English. Not in Spanish though, where it is actually meaningless. (It’s not, incidentally, the only English phrase of bastardized Spanish origin. We also say, No problemo, and native Spanish speakers don’t.)

The exact wording may have been a 20th-century invention, but the basic sentiment recurs at almost all times, in almost every culture. There is, however, one important variation in how it is expressed or understood, reflected in the 14th-century British version, “What must be, must be.”

The difference between the two versions is critical. If you say, “What must be, must be,” it is reasonable to ask what must be and what could be different. If you say, “What will be, will be,” then that is by definition true, but it doesn’t tell you how what will be will actually come to be. Is it inevitable, or can we do something to change it?

Compare and contrast: What isn’t yet can still become. (German proverb)

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGEWilliam Shakespeare (1564–1616)

Theater is the source of numerous fruitful metaphors for human life. Horace Walpole described the world as “a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those who feel.”

Many people spontaneously come to something like Shakespeare’s conclusion at certain moments in their lives, when the disjunction between the persons they feel they really are and how they have to be on a regular basis becomes too stark. There is a powerful ring of truth in the image of putting on a mask in order to go to work, fit in socially, or even fulfill the role your family has come to expect of you.

Such ways of thinking, however, presuppose that there is a distinction between character and player. But what if all the world truly is a stage? If we are always performing, don’t we simply become our performance? A mask that has nothing behind it or is never taken off is not a mask at all, but a face.

It is too simplistic to think that we go through life pretending to be people we are not. When pretense becomes the norm, it is no longer pretense at all.

That’s why we should choose our roles carefully, because when we inhabit them deeply, we become the characters we play.

Compare and contrast: Faces we see, hearts we can’t know. (Spanish proverb)


Statistical analogies suffer from the same weakness as actual statistics: They may not lie, but they sure can mislead. For instance, when quality not quantity is the issue, 1 percent can make all the difference.

Consider human DNA. Most scientists agree that humans share about 98.5 percent of our genetic code with chimpanzees. However, it would be very misleading to say that humans are therefore 98.5 percent chimp. We also share 50 percent of our DNA with bananas, but that doesn’t make us half plantain. What makes each kind of biological organism unique is determined by their small genetic differences, not their numerically greater similarities.

What is literally true of DNA might be metaphorically true of genius. Edison’s analogy is often taken to mean that we can all be brilliant if we work hard enough. But just as the 1 percent difference between our DNA and that of our closest primate relatives is enough to ensure that a chimp can never be a human, so the 1 percent of exceptional talent that the genius mixes with her sweat might be enough to set her apart from even the most industrious of the less gifted. Sheer hard work can take you closer to genius, but it might not be enough to earn you the cigar.Edison’s words are most useful not for the majority striving for greatness, but to make geniuses mindful of what they need to do to exploit their gifts. The 1 percent of inspiration the rest of us lack might always elude us.

Compare and contrast: Genius without education is like silver in the mine. (American proverb)


It is not just rock ’n’ rollers who have railed against life ending in a damp squib. Poet Dylan Thomas urged, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Likewise, when T.S. Eliot wrote that the world ends “not with a bang but a whimper,” he wasn’t trying to cheer us up.

But is this what we really think? Ask the question, “Is it better to burn out than fade away?” and many people will say yes. But ask the question, “How would you like to die?” and most reply, “Peacefully in my sleep, at a ripe old age.”

The truth behind the rhymes of Young and Thomas is that it is better to reach your life’s end with all its credit spent. That is far removed from the naïvely romantic rock-’n’-roll desire to live fast and die young.

Dying too soon is as much of a waste as living long and frittering your time away. Neil Young knew that, which is why as well as “My My, Hey Hey,” he also wrote a song called “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which is a lament for lives cut short by heroin abuse. It’s not the length or speed of life, nor the manner of one’s death that really counts. It’s that, when the final reckoning comes, there’s no wick on life’s candle left to burn.

Compare and contrast: Everything has an end, only a sausage has two. (German proverb)


Nietzsche’s aphorism is not a statement of fact but a resolution, meaning: I will try to ensure that every experience I go through, no matter how bad, will be turned to my ultimate advantage.

That’s why it’s no use simply quoting Nietzsche to someone having a hard time and expecting it to console them. There is absolutely no inevitability that such a person will emerge from an ordeal stronger than at the start. It takes willpower, if not a Nietzschean “will to power,” to turn adversity to advantage. To believe that hard times naturally empower us couldn’t get Nietzsche more wrong, since his point is precisely that it is up to us how we deal with difficulty. That which does not kill you may well make you weaker, if you let it.

Compare and contrast: What won’t kill you, will feed you. (Italian proverb)


We hear much about the power of positive thinking today. Some go so far as to say that it is the secret power that brings some the success that eludes others. If you want something enough, and ask the universe for it, it will happen.

In my mind, this is a monstrous lie. How many people have wanted and begged whatever higher power there might be to stop their loved ones dying, only to get silence in response? Is it a greater desire and focus that enables some babies to emerge into the world with silver spoons in their mouths while others die of malnutrition? Should the finger of blame be pointed at those who have failed, telling them, “You just didn’t want it enough”?

Such ways of thinking have led people to take quite literally Hamlet’s line that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” If every exit is an entrance, and every problem an opportunity, then it seems everything that is bad in life is also really good.

This Panglossian outlook is surely not what any sane person would assent to on reflection. Even if every obstacle is an opportunity, that does not mean that it isn’t a very real obstacle. It is not that the bad is really good, but that even from the bad, some good can come. Rather than providing glib reassurance, the thought that every obstacle is an opportunity should lead us to look squarely at the obstacle for what it is and not wish it were something more benign.

Compare and contrast: Everyone makes lumber from a fallen tree. (Spanish proverb)

FOLLOW YOUR HEARTUbiquitous, origin unknown

Three organs battle it out to be the individual’s executive decision maker: head, heart, and gut. (There are those who argue that men have a fourth center of will that is a little lower, but we’ll ignore that for now.) The head tells you what reason concludes, the heart what you would like to do, and the gut what your instinct says you should do.

No sensible person believes that in this battle you should always and only trust one organ. But in any case, the distinction is somewhat artificial. What we call head, heart, and gut are really all functions of the same embodied brain. What we think is affected by how we feel, and vice versa. How much you want to marry your fiancé, for example, will depend on what you know and believe about him.

There is another sense in which the heart sometimes should be led, not followed. When motivation is lacking, it is often inadvisable to just wait until you feel like getting on with whatever it is you want or think you should be doing. Making a reluctant start is often the best way of creating more motivation to carry on.

This is even true of the rawest of desires, such as sex. Many couples in long-term relationships lose the spontaneous desire to make love, so they just don’t, and as a result, they end up feeling a loss of intimacy, which can threaten the relationship. Therapists often advise that the best thing to do is simply get on with it: If you do, you’ll find the desire soon returns.

Compare and contrast: Appetite comes from eating. (Spanish proverb)

From Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover? ©2010 by Julian Baggini. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. All rights reserved.


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