Words of Wisdom

As 2014 unfolds, take solace in familiar quotations

I always get apprehensive at the prospect of a new year, with both opportunities and challenges sure to present themselves, and daunting conundrums of every kind certain to test my character.

I no longer make resolutions, but I carry a mental and spiritual repair kit wherever I go, a compendium of wisdom-containing clichés, aphorisms and truisms to be used as psychic Band-Aids. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't, but I think of this stuff as akin to the medicine bags the Plains Indians used to carry, packed with totems against harm, disorder, confusion and the unexpected. Mountain men who had prolonged exposure to Native Americans took to carrying such bags, filling them with a bright stone, an eagle feather or maybe a tintype of a woman they knew in St. Louis.

My personal medicine bag is pretty full now, and some of the things in it have served me well, words against the chaos. First among my personal resources is the famous serenity prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." It's not easy to practice those words; it can be difficult to tell the difference between the things you can change and the things you can't, but learning to accept what cannot be changed is the first building block of sanity.

I also find useful truth in the line from Shakespeare's Hamlet that reads: "There is nothing either bad nor good but thinking makes it so." Though there are surely some things so bad that no amount of thinking can make them better, there's also stuff we endure that's really only as bad as we make it out to be. If we rearrange our attitude, we can often reconfigure our own psychic pain.

"Where there's life, there's hope." I read that in a Tarzan comic book when I was maybe 8 years old. Tarzan had been badly mauled by some fierce critter and had climbed up in a tree to recuperate. His chances of survival seemed poor. "Where there's life, there's hope" appeared in a thought bubble above his bleeding head. There have been more than a few times in my life when things seemed hopeless and those words returned to offer encouragement. And hope.

Mark Twain provides several nostrums, but the one that comes up most frequently is his observation that "worry is interest paid on a debt you may never owe." I worry less than I once did, but I'm still pretty good at it.

One of my own pearls of wisdom made it into my medicine bag, a thought that came to me when my eldest daughter complained that her then-boyfriend was giving her "mixed signals." My reply to her was: "Mixed signals are clear signals." It helped her work some things out, but I think I just got lucky when that came to mind.

As scientist Niels Bohr once observed, "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." With all that uncertainty, I'm just glad I've got so many resources in my medicine bag. ♦

A version of this column first appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).

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