Human beings can live for about forty days without food. They can live for three or four days without water. There is no statistical proof of this, but I’m inclined to believe that humans can’t exist more than a few hours without rationalizations: “OK, maybe technically I don’t need another garden gnome, but it was 70% off, so I had to buy it.”
Our need to rationalize — to ascribe our behavior to causes that seem reasonable, even if they aren’t — is often supported by folk wisdom. There’s a proverb that’s been passed down for generations that can justify almost anything.
For instance, if I want to engage in some activity that you might consider risky, my logic is, “Hey, you only live once.” However, if you’re trying to persuade me to do something that’s outside of my comfort zone, I explain my refusal with the adage “Better safe than sorry.”
Your retort to that is the maxim, “You’re never too old to learn.” I shrug and remind you that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” “Mm-hm, there’s no fool like an old fool,” you mutter, and then our conversation turns to an uncomfortable silence — which is golden, by the way. Except when the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
If an acquaintance shares the details of some romantic difficulty he or she is having, you could offer this sage advice: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Or, depending how you feel about their loved one, you could go with “Out of sight, out of mind.” Part of that same conversation might also include the folk wisdom that “Opposites attract,” or depending on context, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
There are contradictory proverbs that can be applied in many other situations as well. I probably don’t have to remind you that “Many hands make light work,” although I must point out that “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” But wait — haven’t we always been told “The more , the merrier”? True, except that “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.”
Sometimes “Patience is a virtue,” but don’t forget that “He who hesitates is lost.” Similarly, it’s important to “Strike while the iron is hot”; just bear in mind that “All good things come to him who waits,” and maybe “Haste makes waste” is the tiebreaker.
At the end of the last century, a psychologist named Robert Epstein examined the validity of some folk-wisdom statements in the context of then-current scientific studies. In other words, is there proof that “confession is good for the soul”, or should we “let sleeping dogs lie”?
In general, there seemed to be some validity to some of the adages. Confession does seem to be good for the soul, and apparently practice does make perfect (or at least, brings about improvement). There is also evidence supporting the notion that “Old habits die hard.”
On the other hand, misery tends to not love company, based on studies about depression, and old dogs can learn new tricks. There were a few proverbs, however, that science doesn’t support, such as this one, succinctly swept aside by Dr. Epstein:
“Cold hands, warm heart. Cold hands, poor circulation. See your doctor.”
It’s my speculation that the frequent application of folk wisdom gives us at least a 50-50 chance of being right. Maybe you can even find a proverb that justifies buying a deeply discounted garden gnome. After all, everybody knows that the best things in life are 70% off.