I live only a few blocks from a church which is on the way to the shopping area of my neighbourhood. This particular church has a large outdoor message board with moveable letters. They change the message once a week or so. It’s generally what I think is intended to be an aphorism, a terse saying that expresses a general truth or astute observation. A pithy saying perhaps.
A recent posting: “Listen carefully, your ears will never get you in trouble.” This is actually a slight misquote from Frank Tyger, who was an editorial cartoonist, columnist and humorist for the Trenton Times, New Jersey. The actual words he is recorded as saying: “Be a good listener, your ears will never get you in trouble.”
My first problem with these postings is that they are never attributed. In other words, they never note who said the words originally. In this particular case, the originator is also slightly misquoted. But my main problem is that the sayings are usually over simplifications.
Many of us probably remember playing a game called “Gossip” as children. In it, we stood in a line while someone whispered to the person at the end. This person then whispered to the next in line and so on. By the time the words got to the other end, they were usually mangled because everyone heard slightly differently.
As we grow older some of us become increasingly hard of hearing, particularly in crowd situations. As my father got deafer, even with a hearing aid, he would often respond to what he thought someone said to him. In many cases, this was not at all what had been said.
When I turned sixty I developed a case of vertigo. I got so dizzy doing yoga one morning that I phoned my son to drive me to the doctor. As we sat in the waiting room, the vertigo and dizziness returned with such force that I had to rush down the hall to the washroom and throw up. It turned out that I probably had Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). Quite a mouthful to say, and disturbing, but it eventually went away, though it does reoccur now and then. The condition (more common in people over 50, and in women) is caused by certain crystals in the inner ear moving out of the otolith organs of the ear and getting into the semi circular canals. Check out the Mayo Clinic website for more information. (There are other causes of dizziness, too.) Obviously, my ears did and do get me into trouble in this case.
I imagine that the people posting the saying at the church wanted to remind us to pay attention to what others have to say. There are techniques of active listening – restating in your own words what you think someone has said, for example, to check that you’ve understood. Even this, though useful, can be problematical on occasion.
We sometimes complicate our lives needlessly, but we can also oversimplify. So let’s think about the meanings of what we read and hear, what we say. The aphorisms or quotes that I like best are the ones that don’t appear too easy, and make us take a few steps back to take time to contemplate the words.
Here’s one to mull over, from Alexander Pope, English poet (1688-1744):
“All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;”