Hearing too many proverbs as a child is toxic. Proverbs sound complete, crisp and wise. You’re not supposed to challenge them. But alas, I didn’t get that memo
Billions of people live in utter poverty all their lives, homeless, hungry and hopeless, believing till their dying breath that every dog has his day
Our parents had a way of messing with our minds. They’d throw proverbs at us. Proverbs are pithy, sound like wisdom pressed into compact chewable orange-flavoured tablets. You can take them entirely at face value. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Yes, sir! Or No gain without pain. You betcha!
But proverbs are lethal to thinking minds because they sound like someone’s thought them through for you and you can just go right ahead and believe them. Their crisp authoritativeness switches your mind off.
Let’s say I told you, “Fruits, dear child, are full of great immune boosters as well as fibre. You should eat lots of bananas, papayas, pomegranates, apples, that kind of thing.” If you weren’t asleep in seconds, you might be murmuring something polite and looking for the exit.
But if I’d said, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, you’d be in my pocket. The apple would become royalty. Only one fruit mentioned, only one benefit mentioned, and it wasn’t even fibre. No more doctors. Sold!
Well, is it true? What does science say? I’m not going to tell you that there’s anything wrong with eating apples; in fact, they’re healthy as can be. But with hospitals filling up and everyone falling sick, I really want to know the bottom line about keeping doctors away.
The original words, uttered in Pembrokeshire, Wales, back in the 1860s, were, “Eat an apple on going to bed and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” In 2014, the Journal of the American Medical Association published research into the connection between eating apples and number of physician visits. “Keeping the doctor away” was defined as no more than one self-reported visit to a doctor in a year, as well as no overnight hospital stays, mental health counselling or prescription medications.
As many as 753 adult apple eaters were compared with 7,646 non-apple eaters. Although apple eaters seemed to consume marginally fewer prescription medications, both groups kept doctors equally busy.
An apple a day kept nothing away. In the interests of open enquiry and enlightenment, I would like to take the pants off a few other proverbs that we tend to assume are written in stone.
Laughter is the best medicine. Since we’ve disqualified apples, here’s another contender. Got stage-4 cancer? Start laughing. Got an aneurysm that will leave you dead in two hours? Start laughing. Hurts when you laugh? Ummm. Laugh some more.
Honesty is the best policy. I have three words: no, no and no. Of course, it’s generally easier to tell the truth because lies have a way of needing more lies. Soon enough, you get all knotted up trying to keep your ducks in a row.
But if your mother is petrified of dying and receives a stage-4 cancer diagnosis, is honesty the best policy? In America, where they have books like My Body, My Self, they may believe your mother has a right to know she’s dying. Trust me, the body knows when it is dying. I’d rather my mother spent her last few days smiling and basking in her children’s love than agonising about her coming demise. Honesty? You can keep it.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. What else am I supposed to judge a book by? In a bookshop, all I have is the cover, my experience with the author’s previous titles, if any, and the blurb on the back. At a party, all I know of a stranger is how they look, talk and behave. Nobody wears a T-shirt saying, “At Home, I’m Bipolar”.
Every dog has its day. I have to remind you here that they’re talking about dogs. I am not one. Neither are the couple of billion people globally who live in utter poverty, homeless, hungry, marginalised, oppressed and hopeless, believing till their dying breath that every dog has his day. This includes half of America and most of India.
Everything happens for a reason. This is commonly told by people to whom nothing bad has ever happened to those who, for example, lost their parents, brothers and sisters to COVID-19, or their everything wiped out by a tsunami. It’s supposed to help them come to terms with the tragedy. “Oh, there’s a reason? That’s all right then.”
Please don’t ask what that reason is. Nobody knows. Believing there is some meaningful reason why a husband batters his wife daily or why Myanmar destroyed millions of Rohingya lives or why 6 million Jews had to be gassed to death is supposed to make you believe that God has a plan. There is no God. And sorry, there’s never been a plan.
He who hesitates is lost. Very well, I promise never to hesitate. Then the other wise man speaks: Haste makes waste, child. Another says, Look before you leap.
I think I’ll just go home and wait. They say good things come to those who wait.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at email@example.com
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.