In a souvenir shop in London some years back, my wife bought a cool mug bearing a likeness of the British “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” poster.
This poster was originally created during World War II and was one of “a number of morale boosting posters that would be displayed across the British Isles during the testing times that lay ahead” (Wikipedia). While two other posters were widely circulated, “the plan in place for this poster was to issue it only upon the invasion of Britain by Germany. As this never happened, the poster was never officially seen by the public.”
For the last few years I’ve noticed this iconic poster popping up all over the place, along with endless variations on it (my favorite being “FREAK OUT AND RUN AMOK”). Last Christmas, I received a KEEP CALM desk calendar, with a new motivational quotation for each day.
In this post I review the good, the bad, and the ugly among these, so as to alternately uplift, demoralize, and challenge you. I close with some ruminations on whether words alone can really lift sunken spirits.
Keep calm and mull these over
“It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more trees.” —George Eliot
I liked this so much I read it to my wife and older daughter. They looked at me quizzically and asked, “Since when do roses grow on trees?” Only then did I think about it. Of course they don’t. They grow on bushes. We even have a word for that: rosebush. Didn’t George Eliot have an editor? What a distraction that “trees” bit is, especially for people better versed in botany than I.
“Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by traffic from both sides.” –Margaret Thatcher
This one is pretty silly. Getting knocked down by traffic from one side is bad enough and should be avoided. Moreover, the main problem here is standing in the road. Roads are for moving. Nobody should be standing in the road. The whole metaphor buckles under its own weight.
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” —Yoda
This one is great and probably the best line of dialogue from all those Star Wars movies. I often recite this one for my kids, but this backfires because they beg me to say it in the Yoda voice. So I do, and then they beg me to say more things in the Yoda voice, and before I know it I’m doing my “Yoda sommelier” routine and my throat gets all sore.
“In most things success depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.” —Montesquieu (French political philosopher)
This is a great point and I have firsthand experience with it. I almost quit bike racing at the end of 1984, but for some reason stuck with it and the next season finally had my first (albeit small-scale) success. On the flip side, it’s important to be able to recognize when you’ve tried hard enough and it’s time to quit. Just look at gambling addicts or rabid Bernie acolytes who stage protests even after the candidate himself has moved on. Depressing.
“Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don’t have time for all that shit.” —George Carlin
This strikes me as very true. If everybody sat around dreaming and asking “what if” all the time, nothing would get done. On the other hand, if everybody is too busy with repetitive tasks to sit back and wonder, innovation will never happen. Surely this double message was Carlin’s intention; once the initial belly-laugh is over we say, “Wait a second….”
“No matter how tall the mountain, it cannot block out the sun.” —Chinese proverb
The problem with this notion is that it’s demonstrably false. Even a low ridge of mountains can block out the sun well ahead of when you’d expect the sunset to occur. Last spring I was doing an evening mountain bike ride with my daughter, and I’d looked up the sunset and civil twilight times in advance. But sure enough, the Berkeley hills, though reaching a peak elevation of less than 2,000 feet, blocked out the sun and we had to descend in the near-dark. For me the metaphorical idea here has been forever sullied.
“Think nothing done while aught remains to do.” —Samuel Rogers, English poet.
This is probably the most demoralizing thing I’ve ever read, because of course something always remains to do. I have a hard enough time reflecting on my life without this bit of advice. Imagine thinking of this when you’re on your death bed. “I guess since I never finished that Master’s degree, it doesn’t matter that I was a good family man. Damn it fuck it all.” Thanks a lot, Samuel.
“There are times when words seem empty and only actions seem great.” —Woodrow Wilson
This is not very inspiring to anybody who aspires to be a writer, or makes his living writing. Those poor journalists ... haven’t they suffered enough, without “advice” like this? Frankly, I think Wilson was speaking mainly for himself. He was never very good with words, like when he justified America’s refusal to join the war effort by saying, “There’s a such thing as being too proud to fight.” What the hell does that mean? You know what? Just shove it, Wilson.
“Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it.” —Chief Seattle, Duwamish chief
I like this quote, as it can help us to realign our perspective and not overestimate our importance in the cosmos. My only problem with this quote is that, every time I glimpsed it on my desk calendar, I misread it as “Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely stranded in it.” That misreading has eclipsed the real quote in memory. Lately, the idea of being stranded in the web of life has been flashing across my mind a lot. I can just picture the spider approaching….
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” —Rumi, 13th-century Persian poet
I think this is really good advice. Frankly, I get annoyed when this or that movement gets all excited and says “We’re gonna change the world!” Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to fix the world, but isn’t it more realistic to do what you can, with limited fanfare, and hope your albeit modest efforts make a noticeable difference? (It’s not cheating to point out your results, by the way. I like to tell my kids, “Watch, I’m going to singlehandedly save the planet by composting this teabag.” They stare back blankly, perhaps thinking something like, “No dad is so dorky that he can block out the sun.”)
My only issue with this quote is that it brings to mind the Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror,” which, though a great song, is just too catchy and gets stuck in my head so before long I’m tweaking the lyrics out of sheer boredom and singing, “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then bag your face!” and my kids are giving me that look again.
“Know how sublime a thing it is/ To suffer and be strong.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 19th-century American poet
I absolutely love this quote. It reminds us that suffering can improve us. (No, I’m not going to trot out that famous Nietzsche quote because I think it’s too often completely untrue. I prefer my inversion of it, “That which does not make you stronger may eventually kill you.”)
Longfellow’s quote here is one of the rare ones that I kind of wish could have come from an athlete, such as the (alas, departed) Mohammed Ali. As sublime images go, picturing Ali in the ring does a better job than picturing a poet at his desk. But that isn’t to say poets don’t suffer. Writing certainly involves suffering (and remember that next time you’re halfway through one of my blog posts and feeling sorry for yourself).
What does Longfellow in particular know of suffering? Actually, quite a lot. He was severely burned trying to save Fanny, his second wife, from burning to death, using his own body to smother the flames. Does this action inform the quote above? Well, not exactly. He wrote these lines years before trying to rescue Fanny, when he’d just begun his 7-year courtship of her. The suffering he mentions here may just have been blue balls. ]
“Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them, the rest of us could not succeed.” —Mark Twain
I like this quote. It’s less stuffy than “in the kingdom of the blind…” and gives us the smug satisfaction of looking down on fools. But it’s not very inspirational, is it? It reminds us that our success is really just a matter of failing less than the next guy, and though we should be reminded of this, I don’t find the thought very comforting.
“Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!” —Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Another albeit great quote that doesn’t, alas, buck me up very much. Yes, humans are resilient and adaptable, but I can’t celebrate this idea without thinking of even more adaptable creatures like pigeons and roaches … not the most inspiring role models.
“Where there is doubt, faith;/ Where there is despair, hope;/ Where there is darkness, light;/ Where there is sadness, joy.” —St. Francis of Assisi.
Look, I’ll be the first to grant that St. Francis of Assisi was a great guy. But this utterance isn’t inspirational or profound. It’s a simple set of contrasts that together mean nothing. What’s next? “Where there is less filling; tastes great; / Where there is Dark Side, Force;/ Where there is gremlin, smurf’”?
“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” —Colin Powell
Holy shit, this is a frightening notion coming from any military leader. I won’t comment on Powell’s track record—politics bores me and I have no insight or opinion here—but remember the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, from history class? This was a textbook case of Groupthink—the tendency of well-meaning team players to appear optimistic despite inner qualms, so that a group will tend to behave far more boldly than it ought to.
I’m reminded of a Kung Fu episode when the old sage hands Grasshopper a pencil and says, “Break this in half,” which he does. Then he hands him a cluster of 50 pencils and says, “Try now,” and of course Grasshopper can’t do it. Nice idea, but you ever try to write with 50 pencils at once? Some forces shouldn’t be multiplied and personally I find nothing inspirational about an idea that scares the shit out of me.
“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” —Jonathan Safran Foer
This is very wise, I think. When I first read this, I thought about my wife and how she loves pancakes enough to risk getting undercooked ones. During our cross-country bike tour, whenever we breakfasted at a diner she’d order pancakes, and 90% of the time they were undercooked and gluey. Fortunately, I always ordered eggs so I could trade with her. Ever since that tour, eating undercooked pancakes makes me feel oddly happy.
Of course this is a nice idea when you’re just talking about fricking pancakes, but it’s a lot harder when you’re actually sad. Foer’s quote doesn’t boost my morale, exactly … I’m reminded to confront my sadness, though I know this won’t necessarily lead to happiness. To assume that it will is to commit the logical fallacy of converse error, which bright people like you and Foer know better than to do. So we embrace sadness, but with no guarantee of relief.
“Hope against hope, and ask till ye receive.” —James Montgomery, British educator and poet
I don’t like this one. Logically, “hope against hope” is a quagmire. Hope is a feeling, and if we don’t feel it, we can’t simulate it through intellectual gymnastics. And “ask till ye receive” is so weak and supplicating. It’s also annoying to the person (and perhaps even the deity) fielding the entreaties. I rue the day I told my kids “It never hurts to ask.” I was imagining them asking for a job, or some kind of retail discount. I wasn’t thinking of them haranguing me for lemonade or something when I’m already shelling out for burgers. Now I find myself repeating a far more useful saying of my own: “Volume and repetition are not sound rhetorical techniques.”
“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” —Booker T. Washington, American writer and educator
This is good, but sounds kind of stuffy. “One” is so formal, and there just seem to be too many words here. I read this to my teenaged daughter and I’m pretty sure she fell asleep halfway through. Sensing a teachable moment I discussed the quote with her, and we came up with what I think is a much improved version: “Success isn’t just where you got in life, but how much gnar you shredded along the way.”
That’s better, I think, but is it inspirational? The problem is, success doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. So many of the most (conventionally) successful people are successful because they’re unhappy. Their insatiable thirst for success is perhaps rooted in the mistaken belief that happiness will follow success. To them, this quote might be depressing; they might lash out at Fate for not giving them better obstacles to overcome. And those of us who acknowledge the disconnect between success and happiness won’t be inspired at all. Say, for example, we’re feeling sad about death. How could the idea of success even figure in?
The problem with aphorisms
Where morale is concerned, the problem with quotations is that mere words, delivered on a page (or a screen) to a solitary reader, tend to fall flat. They’re just advice, given in a disembodied voice and usually lent some cred by an authority figure you’ve never met. My desk calendar is fine food for thought, but doesn’t achieve the goal of the poster on which it is based.
The idea of the poster campaign, on the other hand, is excellent. The Brits are a famously stoic people, and stoicism—to a point (cf. Foer)—can be useful, especially when it’s shared. In that sense, the collective stoicism engendered by the poster campaign is a “force multiplier.” (There’s no pitfall of Groupthink here because feeling, not strategy, is influenced.)
Just to be clear: sharing mere words is not the point. Social media is not a functional conduit for a morale-building campaign because it does not involve actual human contact—it’s just another disembodied delivery mechanism for words. The British poster campaign works more like this: you’re a Londoner, and your city is being bombed, and you’re hunkering in a fallout shelter with scores of your countrymen. It’s terrifying, but you have the solidarity of your mates and the stoicism is infectious. Before you know it, you’re all singing—yes, actually singing!—and then you catch a glimpse of one of these morale-building posters. No, the words are not ingenious (indeed, “keep calm and carry on” is less profound than most of the above quotations), but the shared experience imbues the poster with more meaning than it had before—so that the next day, when you’re walking through rubble in your war-torn city, you see one of those posters and are reminded of the camaraderie of the bomb shelter, and maybe this helps just a bit.
Of course you and I are not overcoming this particular obstacle, and most of us aren’t British. But suppose you’re grieving … I still think there’s special value in, say, sitting with an identically aggrieved friend, sipping good beer, talking a bit but not incessantly, gazing passively across the room at the faintly luminous dial on his 1970s-era stereo tuner, not knowing anything profound but at least knowing you’re not alone.
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