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Words of Wisdom

The wise words of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, to which I referred in last week’s blog, reminded me yet again that there is so much good advice out there, if only we can find the time and space to absorb it.  On reflection, and with all the desperate news filling our screens and airwaves every day, I should probably have made more of his observation that the best revenge is not to be like your enemy.

We seem to be drawn to nuggets of wisdom, whether from religious sources, figures of historical significance or even Winnie the Pooh.  A quick Google search for ‘The Little Book of…’ produces an array of options from calmness to self-confidence to investment advice, and I am sure that many of our houses have advice on our walls or shelves, perhaps along the lines of William Purkey’s reminder: ‘You've gotta dance like there's nobody watching, love like you'll never be hurt, sing like there's nobody listening, and live like it's heaven on earth.’

My personal favourites tend to be less wise but tickle my sense of humour: ‘Your village called…they want their idiot back.’ Or: ‘Remember, as far as anyone knows, we are a nice, normal family,’ with its echoes of the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ 

As regular readers will know, I usually describe my approach to the collection of other people’s wisdom as being like that of a magpie, in that I am attracted to shiny things – though yet again it turns out that this is a myth and the birds are actually frightened of anything too bright.  However, whenever I say it, people nod in agreement, so as long as we all buy into the same folklore then we’ll be all right.  My collection of quotations now runs to forty pages, so probably about six hundred different thoughts, with about ninety per cent of them attributed, at least as accurately as they can be, given that much of what we think is true turns out not to be – as I’ve just shown with the magpies. 

In my recent round of assemblies, I chose eight pieces of wisdom from my ‘anonymous’ list, i.e. the quotations that I have not been able to assign to a specific individual, and I asked the children for their thoughts.  In order to add a bit more context, I told them that I had decided to write my own book along the lines of Charlie Mackesy’s ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’, which has been one of the bestselling books in this country since it was published a couple of years ago.

Given my complete lack of artistic talent, the first challenge was to find four characters I could actually draw, so I went for ‘The Child, the Cat, the Sheep and the Grasshopper’, a plan immediately thwarted when it turned out that none of my animations even vaguely resembled what they were meant to.  I showed the children my efforts and reminded them of the importance of being curious rather than judgemental, but this plea fell on deaf ears, as demonstrated by the volume of the sniggering that greeted my efforts.

I managed to find some icons in PowerPoint that at least gave some clue about the characters I had tried to draw, which I followed up with four more icons – the sun, a hot air balloon, a tree and a castle.  It was interesting to note how easy it was for pupils of all ages to take four simple images and immediately translate them into a story of four friends having an adventure.

The other book I needed to reference was Richard Osman’s ‘The World Cup of Everything’, which I’m fairly sure I have highlighted before in these pages.  In case you don’t know it, the premise is that the author picks a series of items, from sweets to biscuits to British sitcoms, and puts them into a group of sixteen that forms the basis of a knockout tournament.  In each round of the competition, those taking part are encouraged to debate the pros and cons of each item and then vote on which on they want to go through. The winning choices then face each other in the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and the final, until only one is left to be crowned as the overall winner. 

I may not have done the concept justice in that description, but I would nevertheless thoroughly recommend the book as a go-to icebreaker for all sorts of occasions.  I have played it with family, friends and even work colleagues at social events, and it has never yet received anything but an enthusiastic reception.  As long as Fawlty Towers is crowned top sitcom, cola cubes top sweets and chocolate digestives top biscuits, all is well in my world.  

For the purpose of the assemblies, I chose eight different phrases and tried to set them up to provoke an interesting debate – well, as interesting as you are likely to achieve at 8.30am with an audience comprised mostly of teenagers.  The objective was to choose the mantra, for want of a better word, to put on our castle wall at the end of our balloon flight over a forest on a sunny day with four badly illustrated travelling companions.

You can play along at home if you like, or not as the case may be.  If you are, your first choice is: ‘Don’t break silences unless you can improve upon them’ versus ‘Love yourself enough to never lower your standards for anyone.’  The subsequent ‘matches’ paired ‘You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one’ with ‘When you can’t control the winds, adjust your sails’; ‘Do not follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and create a trail’ with ‘Failure is the cornerstone of success’; and ‘A successful life is an accumulation of successful days’ with ‘Diversity is inviting someone to the party, inclusion is asking them to dance.’

I did the same assembly for three age ranges across the school, each of which made different choices.  It was meant to be a bit of fun rather than a serious social experiment, so I did not record the results and I am not in a position to announce anything profound about the conclusions.  I will therefore conclude with some attributed words of wisdom about wisdom.  Francis Bacon said, ‘A prudent question is one half of wisdom’, while Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote, ‘The aim of existence is a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom’, echoed by Chief Sitting Bull’s observation, ‘You learn by experience, but mistakes teach you wisdom.’  Any thoughts on that last one, Mr Putin?

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