IT BEGAN WITH James Geary's wonderful book, "Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists."
Reading through the aphorisms was a marvelously entertaining pastime, in large part because along with saying the truth in clever and memorable ways, the aphorists would also, just as often, say something howlingly false . . . but in a clever way.
I thought back to aphorisms I heard from my parents growing up. "We all share the work and we all share the play." That meant, in those prechemical days, that I had to help dig dandelions from the lawn.
But there were a couple of others "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" and "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" that conjured up a whole world of tradition.
The first was a slogan used by Marxist-Leninist Communism. Not that any Communist state ever actually followed the aphorism but I still couldn't help wondering how that particular saying entered my family's tradition.
The second was widely used as a maxim of the Saints settling in the state of Deseret back in the 1850s and on into the Utah Territory days, when it was extremely hard to get the cash to buy much-needed items from the East.
Then there was the chant (perhaps popularized by Napoleon Hill), "Day by day in every way I'm getting better and better." My mom remembered her father teaching the family, back in the 1930s, to chant this as a way of inducing "positive thinking."
(Today we'd call it "building self-esteem." Or maybe not. The self-esteem movement would probably prefer to chant, "Day by day in every way I'm already as good as I can possibly be.")
Doctrines have sometimes come to us as aphorisms: "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become." Lorenzo Snow said it, but it has never been made part of scripture.
I took the book of aphorisms to my ward's priests quorum and used a part of our lesson time reading them aphorisms and having them discuss whether it was always true, often true, usually false or always false.
My follow-up lesson was on the Book of Proverbs. We read verses from chapter 20 and talked about them.
It was easy to understand "The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing" (verse 4).
"A king that sitteth in the throne of judgment scattereth away all evil with his eyes" (verse 8) was harder.
The best interpretation we could come up with was that some kings refused to spend time serving the people as chief judge; if the people can't appeal to the king for justice, then evil is not scattered away. And if he sits in the throne of judgment, perhaps then he is able to see what's really going on in his kingdom.
But what in the world does it mean to say, "Take his garment that is surety for a stranger: and take a pledge of him for a strange woman" (verse 16). Maybe you have to know Hebrew language and culture as of, say, 500 B.C. for this to make a speck of sense. Language and culture change, and meaning or cleverness can be lost.
What we need, I told them, is proverbs for our own time, growing out of commonplace ideas in our own culture, but telling the truth about things that matter. I read them a few proverbs I had made up during Sunday School:
"Turn on the light before you probe for the splinter."
"The liar brings his own darkness into the house of light."
"Fill the tank before you set out; the price of gas will be higher on the highway."
One of the priests immediately suggested an improvement: "If the stations are even open."
So we changed it to "Fill the tank before you set out; the gas stations on the highway might be closed." Or "who knows which gas stations will be open?"
Then, to their horror, I passed out sheets of paper. Was I serious? Did I expect them to write their own proverbs? Yes indeed.
Here's a sampling of what they came up with that Sunday afternoon:
(I specifically told them not to worry about originality. All the best proverbs have probably already been said by somebody else. That goes for mine, too.)
"The best story is always the truth" (TC).
"It is better to do something, knowing you can't fix it, than to do nothing, knowing you could have tried" (KD).
"I will go to bat for you, but I may strike out" (RF).
"A small thing can obstruct a large truth" (MC).
"I'll be your shoulder to cry on, but I won't drown in your tears" (NB).
"The best part about an injury is showing it off" (RF).
"Temporary candy makes permanent tooth decay" (RF).
"You can bathe to wash off dirt, but you must pray to wash off sin" (TC).
"There are no stupid questions, just a lot of really inquisitive idiots" (JH).
"He who knows right and does nothing is no better than he who knows nothing and does wrong" (JL).
"Wise men question 'wise' counsel" (RF).
"He who cheats on a test cheats himself in the end" (ALK).
"Sometimes picking your nose is the best method" (RF).
"Even if you know the teachers are wrong, you've got to remember what they said on the test" (JL).
"Life is like an old pencil: It's short and has no eraser" (NB).
I'm collecting their proverbs into a little booklet. But I can't finish it yet some of them insist they want to write more.
As the new adage says: "Wisdom is not confined to old people or old books."
Reading modern proverbs brings old truths to life again; writing them makes you think deeply and then distill the truth to its essence.
Here on the Web version of my column, there's room to give you the names of the priests quorum proverbifactors, including some from the teachers quorum who happened to be visiting that day credit where credit is due, as the proverb says. ALK: Andrew Lee Kirkman; JH: Jordan Hilton; JL: Jon Lewis; KD: Kyle Donegan; MC: Michael Casey; NB: Norman Brown; RF: Ricky Fenton; TC: Tomas Cabeza.
If you're actually interested in the making of proverbs, here's the full set of proverbs I came up with complete with the lousy ones and comments on some of them.
My first proverb came from our gospel doctrine teacher's vain attempts to get the class, which meets in the chapel, to move to the front instead of scattering throughout the room. "Those who choose to sit on the back row, why are they afraid to be close to the speaker of truth?"
But I decided I didn't much like that one. It asserts something that might be untrue that the motive is fear. It's not so much a proverb as a slap. So I revised it thus: "Don't choose the back row; sit at the feet of the speaker of truth."
Now I'm making no accusation about motive; I'm instead praising the teacher and encouraging the students to give value and respect to the teacher by moving closer. Instead of being a slap, it's counsel, and more likely to be listened to.
"The house of the Lord is filled with light, but a lying heart brings its own darkness." I knew what I wanted to say, but this version didn't work. Nor did it help to change "darkness" to "shadow." I tried replacing the second half with "the eyes of the liar are made blind," but that was even clunkier.
Only when I realized that it was the Hebrew-like two-part structure that was hurting this proverb could I come up with the one that feels right to me: "The liar brings his own darkness into the house of light."
Here's one that is advice to myself: "Teach, not what you thought you knew, but what God has newly taught you." I'm one who is prone to coast on my previous knowledge, coming to new assignments with the attitude, "Oh, that topic I can do 30 minutes on that in my sleep."
But I keep discovering that while the things I already knew were a foundation, there are always new insights and invariably it's the new ones that my audience or class is most excited about. Or, to put it proverbially, "Satisfaction with your own knowledge keeps you from discovery."
"Your spirit knows more than your reason can discover, and both know more than the professors." Now of course this is not always true I want engineering students, for example, to learn from the experts how to build bridges, and not rely on the Spirit or their own reason!
Still, I'd like to have the adage in neon above the heads of politically correct professors who propagandize impressionable students. My priests quorum is only a year or less from college. It's our last shot at preparing them to survive university atheism.
"Teachers and farmers like straight rows, but the wise student plants his own garden." Or, as I tell kids over and over: "Be in charge of your own education. If you're not, you're getting trained, not educated."
"I will feed you, clothe you and tend to your wounds, but I will not help you get revenge." Maybe cutting would make this better: "I will protect you and heal you, but I will not help you get revenge."
(At this point, I wrote the adages that I included in the main body of my column: "Turn on the light ... " and "Fill the tank ... "
"Rice and flour can be kept for a year, but fresh milk must be bought new. Study the scriptures, but also pray for wisdom."
If this proverb ever caught on, it would quickly be shortened to only the first half, without the interpretation; and then it would be abbreviated to "Rice and flour can be kept for a year" and finally "Rice and flour, you know."
"Even fools will save their children's lives, but they do nothing to save their souls."
"Why do you envy what I have? You know nothing of what I have lost."
"The rich own as much as the poor: there is neither pride nor envy at death."
"What God gives us can be owned forever, if we constantly give it away." I was unhappy with this one, because it's not true of everything except, really, the gospel itself, and that's too limited for what I wanted to say. My second try: "What you try to keep, you will lose; but what you give stays given."
Now, though, I was on a law-of-consecration roll: "The rich man gives only as much as he can spare and still be rich. The poor have little, but God remembers all their gifts." Those might be two separate proverbs, but they belong next to each other anyway.
"The rich love the free market, because they make the rules." This reflects the obvious fact that there is no such thing as a completely free market, and if we ever faced one it would freeze the souls of those who claim to trust it.
"Why should the poor trust the free market, when the rich make the rules to please themselves?" This one wasn't so much a proverb as a mini-diatribe.
"The fault of the rowdy child is with the parents, but adults must answer for themselves." I don't think "rowdy" is really the right word. I'm really reaching for the idea that as an adult, it's time to stop blaming your parents for what's wrong with your life and get about the business of making your own choices to change things. I'll work more on that one.
"Children who love and honor their parents already have their inheritance."
"You cannot steal the key of happiness, nor pick the lock, nor bribe the doorkeeper."
"To the heart filled with love, the door to happiness is never locked."
"If you walk in darkness, light makes you blind."
"God knows your name, even when you forget it."
"Why are you angry with a child? Your anger is the greater fault." This is one that parents should repeat to themselves every day, the way my wife and I absorbed a great adage from Judith Martin (aka a.k.a. Miss Manners), who wrote in her excellent book "Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children": "No child needs to hear criticism on the day of the performance."
We have tried to live by that, and have found that our kids' skills improve faster if we wait for them to invite suggestions. The power of the proverb!
"The dog barks at every stranger, but lets the lying friend into the house."
"You must repeat your teacher's errors to pass the test, but you do not have to believe them."
"Pride is a hippopotamus, always hungry for praise, swallowing anything."
In the book of Proverbs, not all the adages stand alone. Sometimes they form a sequence, each sentence building on the one before. Here are a few of those:
"Do people praise you for your beauty? It is chance and fashion they admire.
"Do they praise you for your wisdom? It means you share their foolishness.
"Do they praise your conversation? It means you listen to them and laugh at their jokes.
"Do people come to you for counsel? They have seen your love of God."
Here's another sequence just a pairing, really: "If a young man scorns his father, he is spitting on himself." "If a young woman lies to her mother, no one can trust her."
And finally: "Love is fertile, well-watered soil, where all plants grow. Hope sows all seeds; wisdom knows which plants to harvest."
The young men in my class responded with vigor and creativity to the challenge of trying to distill truth to pithy sayings. They admired and praised each other's best accomplishments, and seemed to enjoy both the thinking and the performance.
I can imagine this working in family home evenings (with older children) or in other classes. But most of all, I know how much pleasure I got from following up my thoughts with the attempt to write them clearly and effectively.
It can take many drafts before I find even an adequate way to do it, and sometimes it simply can't be done well, or at least not that day.
But even when the proverb doesn't come out well, the process of trying to create it can sharpen your thought and lead you to new insights.