I recall as a child at prep school being introduced to pairs of mutually contradictory proverbs. For example
“many hands make light work” vs “too many cooks spoil the broth”
“Look before you leap” vs “He who hesitates is lost.”
and so on. In fact a proverb without a contradiction is a hole waiting to be filled. We didn’t use to have a partner proverb for “a stitch in time saves nine,” so one was calling out to be invented, which the American Bert Lance duly did in 1977 when he popularized the expression “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.
The very fact that for each proverb one can find an opposite shows that they can’t actually be of any use in making decisions. So why do we like these proverbs, and what exactly are we doing when we utter words like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”? I use this example because it’s a phrase I have often used myself in the past, until today I took a vow never to do so again.
So, here comes someone with something that isn’t broken, or not very broken, that they propose to spend time and money fixing. And someone says “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. What’s going on? Well, there is a little bit of bullying in this statement, I feel. (Translation: “only an idiot would propose to mend something that doesn’t need mending”). Just as there is a little bit of nagging in “a stitch in time saves nine” (But now that I think about it, do people even use this proverb any more? – or is it just an old-fashioned thing I learned in school? When was the last time anyone mended anything, anyway?: “if it is broke, throw it away and buy a new one” would be a better motto for today’s times. But I digress).
More often, though, a proverb like this is uttered, not to persuade someone else, but to persuade – or more precisely reasure – oneself. Whatever one has decided on, one can reach for a proverb that provides the reassurance that the proposed course of action is blessed by its connection to a deep source of human wisdom. Every decision involves uncertainty and is therefore – however slightly – unsettling. Just find the right proverb, utter it to onself, and these emotions are calmed.