Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Wisdom of Mark Twain

Today is Sunday, September 29, 2013. 

 Mark Twain is the pen name of author Samuel Clemens, who lived from 1835 to 1910.  Interestingly, he was born during the appearance of Halley's Comet, and he predicted that he would "go out with it," too. That was actually not such a bad prediction, as Halley's Comet comes every 75-76 years.  Clemens died the day after the comet returned. Some people just seem to have an inner knowing about things like that.  His obituary in the New York Times cited him as the "greatest American humorist" of the times.  Although he failed at many other things in life, his writing and his humor were his strengths, and perhaps they were his true purpose in life.  If so, he certainly fulfilled his purpose, and he has left us with a legacy of valuable insights about life.

It's true that he was a humorist, but his commentaries on life were pretty accurate, and his advice is sterling.  Here is a sample of some things he said.  Like a lot of famous people, many quotes have been misattributed to him, particularly since the advent of the Internet.  I tried to check out each of these quotes before including them, but ultimately, if you don't have the original source in your hand, it's hard to tell, sometimes.  Quotes are in bold, followed by my comments.

Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

It's true that not many people expect others to do the right thing, but when we act according to our beliefs, we at least show some integrity.  The problem is that what I think is right is not always what you think is right, but you can't legislate morality, so the best anyone can do is to do what is right according to your lights, regardless of what others are doing, and try to refrain from judging others for what they do. 

 It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.

Just take a look at the morning or evening news to check this one out.  I think a lot of people make themselves miserable by insisting that life should make sense somehow.  Well, it actually does make sense in the fullness of time, but not in the details.  Trouble is, we live in the details.

Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.

These days, if you live in a big city, chances are that the undertaker will not even know who you are, unless you are famous.  Still, the point is made that if we live to capacity, even an undertaker whose business depends on our death will mourn our passing.  I once went to a funeral where every speaker seemed to say, "He was a good man."  Nobody actually gave any details, though.  I knew the man, and he was, indeed, a good man, but he never really distinguished himself during his lifetime.  Perhaps the vast majority of us are like this man, and if that is so, then perhaps it is enough for people to say that you were a good person at your funeral, even if they can't give any examples.  Maybe it's just the general impression that counts.

When your friends begin to flatter you on how young you look, it’s a sure sign you’re getting old.

Hmmm, don't tell that to the advertisers, because so many of the ads are for products that are geared to make you look young when you're not, anymore.  I wonder if this sort of statement can be generalized to include other attributes.  If people flatter you on how smart you are, does that mean you're getting stupid?   What about if people flatter you that you are right.  Does that mean you are wrong?   If people say you are beautiful, does that mean you are really ugly?  A person could get really paranoid about this one.  It's true that people do tend to be especially "kind" to others in social situations, but I don't think they really mean the opposite... do they?

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

This is the best advice, I think.  These days, it is recognized that our physical age doesn't always tell the whole story.  There is "emotional age" and "spiritual age" as well.  You can be emotionally mature or immature, and spiritually mature or immature, or even intellectually mature or immature, regardless of the maturity level of your body or your chronological age.  We all know some middle-aged people who are emotional infants, and most of us have at least heard of a child who seems wise beyond his or her years.  It's too bad that the Western culture we have adopted as our standard here in the United States does not seem to recognize maturity in any of its forms as something worthy of our respect. 

A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.

Mark Twain lived in an age when the term for human beings in general was always "man" so this statement can and should apply to women, as well.  Once again, if the advertisers had their way, they would tell you to forget about this advice, because they really want you to buy their products so that you will have the approval of others.  When we stop wanting approval from others, even from our loved ones, we gain a measure of freedom and authentic personal power (as opposed to power over others). 

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great. 

This is a good point.  The next time you hear someone belittling another, ask yourself what they are getting out of it.  It may be that they are only trying to make themselves feel smart.  If you take their advice and fail, then they will be right, as well.  Don't give them the satisfaction. The world is full of people who have had negative things to say about people who ultimately succeeded brilliantly.

A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that the person in question didn't listen to the naysayers, and he or she wasn't  looking for approval from others, either.  It's a good thing that there are such people in this world, because if there weren't, we'd all be sitting around twiddling our thumbs in the dark, cold, hungry and bored, because we wouldn't have learned to tame fire to keep us warm or cook our food, we wouldn't have tamed electricity to provide light and power, and we wouldn't have invented computers or made them so small that individuals can carry them anywhere.  We wouldn't have invented the wheel to create machines that transport us to interesting places.  

Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.

Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments flit away and a sunny spirit takes their place.

Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.

I put these quotes together because they basically say the same thing.  A lot of ideas can be expressed with humor that would seem unpalatable any other way.  Twain's humor was on the dry side, but his insights into life were spot on, and the humor conveyed his message in a way that people could accept and laugh right along with everyone else. We can all benefit from making light of situations, occasionally, although it's a temptation, at times, to trivialize certain situations that should really retain their gravity in our minds.   Humor is well used whenever it deflects anger.  As many others have noted, it's hard to be angry when you're laughing.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

I like the metaphor of anger as an acid.  It's true that anger does more harm to the person who is angry than to anyone he or she might be angry with.  Anger keeps us chained to the past, because in order to maintain our anger, we must keep reliving the incident that made us angry in the first place.  When we send out anger vibrations, we poison the space that we are in, and others often unconsciously pick up our vibrations and act on them without ever realizing that the anger they are feeling is not their own.  We absorb a lot of anger from people around us and from the media.  How many angry words have you allowed into your subconscious today because you left the TV on, even if you were not actually watching it?  You might be surprised.  The next time you spend an hour or two watching TV, keep a pad of paper by your side and tally how many angry comments are made, even if you are only watching a drama.  It doesn't matter if the anger is "real" or not.  Your subconscious and your nervous system don't know the difference.

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

Forgiveness is the ultimate act of grace, which has been defined as love's response to imperfection.  If anger keeps us chained to the past, forgiveness allows us to let go of the past and move forward into the future.

Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

It's true, kindness speaks volumes, and it usually translates pretty well between cultures.  Whether or not you go to church or consider yourself a spiritual person, if you can be kind to others, you are on the right track.  

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.

It's getting embarrassing to see the level of entitlement in this country.  There's a very fine line between saying, "I paid into the Social Security system when I was working and now I'd like my money back," and saying, "I'm poor and the government should give me some money."  But it's not just about the Social Security system.  There are other types of entitlements.  White males feel entitled.  Whites in general feel entitled.  Christians in the United States feel entitled.  The rich feel entitled.  The highly-educated feel entitled.  Congress feels entitled.  

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

It's true.  We make ourselves miserable.  Misery is actually a choice.  It's hard not to feel sorry for ourselves sometimes, but it's always possible to choose otherwise.  One of the best ways to do this is to focus outwardly, on others, rather than thinking about ourselves all the time.  When we focus on helping other people, our own misery recedes into the background and we realize how easy it is to let go of it. 

The fear of death follows from the fear of life.  A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.

Why do people fear death?  They fear being snuffed out, nullified.  But if we have had any positive impact at all on people, or, for that matter, any negative impact, we will be remembered after we pass on.  If we have accomplished our life purpose, we will have done our part in the Divine Plan, whether our part is remembered or not. 

Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

Sorry, I just had to add this one.  A lot of Americans are not happy with Congress these days, especially with a federal government shutdown being threatened by those who value party ideology over the good of the people.  It appears from Twain's comment that Congress has been this way in the past, so maybe they are just fulfilling their purpose in this lifetime, too, for whatever lessons their idiocy can afford the rest of us.  :-)

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