words to live by

The Better Letter is “an informative and entertaining weekly newsletter about markets, politics, faith, and life,” written by Bob Seawright, a friend of mine from the investment business.  A couple of months ago, he titled one edition “Words to Live By,” which I stole for this posting’s theme.

Bob’s list of “rules, maxims, and heuristics” are ones that he has “found useful for trying to ascertain truth and foster understanding.”  Some are well known, others more obscure, and four have the name Seawright in the title, so they aren’t all derivative.  There is context and explanation offered for many of them, but others don’t need any.

The first on the list is the Golden Rule and the last two are the Serenity Prayer and the Prayer of St. Francis.  Those are some powerful bookends — inspiring, but tough to live up to (at least for some of us).

You’ve no doubt heard a couple of carpentry-themed sayings:  “Measure twice; cut once” and “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  And others you know by experience, such as Brandolini’s Law:  “The amount of energy needed to refute bulls*** is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.”

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  I knew that, I guess, but it sure has been easy to forget along the way.

A couple of Nobel Prize winners got to the heart of the matter.  According to Daniel Kahneman, “It is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”  And Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”  Smart guys.

On the occasion of his seventieth birthday a few days ago, Kevin Kelly wrote a posting, “103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known.”  They are also words to live by, again starting off with a bang:  “About 99% of the time, the right time is right now.”  I don’t have the best track record in that regard.

How about this one?  “Your growth as a conscious being is measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations you are willing to have.”  But do it with grace, because, “You will be judged on how well you treat those who can do nothing for you.”

As a parent, I guess I was supposed to be a supplier of wisdom, but I don’t really remember doing that.  Perhaps my children can recall some.  I did yell to them when they left the house, “Remember who you are.”  (They had been told repeatedly that they could call at any time if they were in jail and I would come and get them . . . in the morning.)

Now that I’m a grandfather I should probably up my game a little, so maybe I can borrow some ideas from these lists and other ones.  I have been writing Dara letters on her birthday each year.  (In longhand, on paper, so I have no record of what I wrote.)  One of these days she’ll be able to read them, although my penmanship will be a hurdle to overcome.

Thirty-one months old, she has quite a facility for words herself.  Thanks to a Spanish immersion preschool and Hindi-speaking relatives — and a more recent obsession with a Japanese show called “Old Enough” on Netflix — she is learning several languages as she grows.  I don’t know how she keeps them straight, but the experts say that the early years are the perfect time to acquire language skills.

Not long ago, I joked about doing something out of the norm in a public place and Dara said, “That would be ridiculous.”  I’m worried that she has me figured out already.

In any case, I’m looking for inspirational words that I can pass along to her.  (Something other than “genius skips a generation,” which is what my dad used to say to me in jest.  At least I think it was in jest.)

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say or write; words can feel inadequate or trite.  In the end, it’s the sincere and heartfelt ones that matter, even if they aren’t eloquent.

Words are powerful weapons, often molded into mantras that we adopt, repeat, and put forth without really thinking about the impact they have and whether they really represent who we would like to be.  The biblical scholar Eugene Peterson said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.”

When I was looking for a little Mother’s Day gift, I came across a book with a familiar title, Words to Live By, containing “50 Inspiring Quotes by 50 Inspiring Women.”  It’s simple, just two-page spreads with graphics and a single quote.  Maybe her Nani will pass it on to Dara some day.

There are some wise words in there.

George Eliot (who had to adopt a man’s name so her work would be taken seriously) wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”  I find hope in that, even at my advanced age.  I’m going to keep trying.

The artist Corita Kent said, “Flowers grow out of dark moments.”  (Although you can’t see the seeds and can’t imagine that could be the case.)

I’ll let the great Aretha Franklin have the last words:  “Sometimes what you’re looking for is already there.”

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