This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Features. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
“Keep calm and carry on.” “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Don’t worry, be happy.”
These are the kinds of pithy, inspiring phrases and quotes that, historically speaking, have the power to steady us through challenging times. War. Depression. The 1980s.
Call them mantras, maxims or even memes – they get repeated and recycled over the years, sometimes over the millennia, because they contain powerful jolts of easily accessible truth, insight and perspective.
“Aphorisms live because they contain human truth,” Adam Gopnick wrote in The New Yorker magazine last summer, “and reach across barriers of class and era.”
Collection of quotes
I’ve been collecting such fun-size, self-contained wisdom for decades now. I started a list of found quotes on looseleaf sheets in high school, a notebook that is now more than 160 pages long. I have used them in my writing and consulted with them in personally difficult times, such as heartbreak, work stress and the death of others.
And I turned to them this week, as we all face new struggles, looking for wisdom from the past to help the present.
Below are quotes I think speak to this time of coronavirus shutdowns and of health and economic fears.
Like a crow seeking shiny bits of enlightenment, I’ve indiscriminately snatched quotes from anywhere: books, songs, movies, speeches, articles, plays, poems, religious dogma, bumper stickers, graffiti, t-shirts, friends, family and strangers.
But it should be disclaimed that some quotes have their own journey; at times their origin gets historically murky and the provenance dubious. But I think that’s OK. It’s more important that their condensed insight holds us steady.
Ahead of attacks on its cities during World War II, the British government issued and displayed three posters with messages written to boost morale and mentally prepare its civilians. One of them, “Keep calm and carry on,” has grown in popularity over the years because its message is applicable beyond its original intent. It’s also poignant now that coronavirus is invoking comparisons to world war.
Similarly, a line from President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address, to a nation paralyzed in the economic fear of the Great Depression, has endured its original meaning because “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speaks to the psychology of all panic.
“A life lived in fear is a life half lived,” declares a character in the 1992 Australian film “Strictly Ballroom,” the line attributed to the film’s director and co-writer, Baz Luhrmann.
Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, repeats variations of this wise exchange between characters: “Aren’t you worried?” “Would that help?”
For what use is our fear right now? “Worry is like a rocking chair: It gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere,” wrote humorist Erma Bombeck.
Now is the time for a more scientific and analytical approach, as the physicist Marie Curie said: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Be happy, or at least Zen
For anyone alive in 1988, Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy” has been stuck in their head ever since. There have been many happiness songs before and since (Pharrell, the Partridge Family), but McFerrin’s Grammy-winning tune has had the longest staying power, because it’s simple and directive.