Sayings can be very useful ways of briefly capturing important elements of wisdom. For example, the idea of ‘better safe than sorry’ has no doubt helped many people to avoid making rash decisions or launching into situations unprepared. So, they clearly have an important role to play as elements of whatever culture we are brought up in (different cultures will have different sayings, but there will, of course, be many common themes).
But, it isn’t all good news. This is because, for one thing, sayings can be contradictory. Compare ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ with ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Sayings therefore have limitations, and so we need to be careful and critical in how we use them. They are simplified representations of complex realities, so they can easily mislead us if we are not careful.
What can be particularly problematic is when a saying is used to justify unwise or unethical behaviour, and that is what I mean by ‘getting trapped’ in a saying – limiting ourselves to a very simplified understanding. For example, I have come across many occasions where people have used ‘Charity begins at home’ as an excuse for not supporting a worthy cause. Now, of course, we can’t support all the worthy causes out there, so people obviously have the right to choose which charities they support and which they don’t. However, charity begins at home can be used as an excuse not to support any humanitarian efforts at all.
Another example would be ‘Boys will be boys’ being used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. It also has sexist implications, of course, in implying that there are, or should be, different standards of behaviour between boys and girls. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we don’t allow the very familiarity of certain assumptions to mislead us into thinking that they are therefore valid assumptions.
A further idea expressed in a saying that can be problematic is that of: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’. This warns us that we should be wary about making changes on the assumption that what we are changing to is better than what we already have. Of course, it is very wise not to get too excited about something until you know more about it and have had chance to weigh up carefully whether it is indeed better than what you already have. But, there is also the danger that adhering too strongly to this saying can make us unduly cautious and conservative, not willing to make changes or try new things. In other words, it can hold us back unnecessarily.
So, what I am definitely not saying is that we should never use sayings, that we should banish them or anything quite so extreme. But, what I am saying is that we have to be careful not to be seduced by the simplicity and familiarity of these adages or allow them to relax our critical faculties and be taken in by ideas that, in certain circumstances at least, can lead us into difficulties. So, when you come across a saying or you find yourself using one, just give a little bit of thought to what assumptions go with that saying and consider whether you are happy to be making those assumptions.
Sayings can be useful as quick summaries of established wisdom, and so they can be very helpful at times. But, we need to be cautious and not give them more credence than they deserve. We have to do our own thinking and not allow a saying to do our thinking for us.