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Wise Words from Four Wise Men

By Mary Zahran

In this season of graduations and weddings, we hear many people offer advice about life. College graduates receive advice about the “real world” from guest speakers and bridal couples endure jokes and toasts as family and friends give them tips for a happy marriage.

I, too, would like to pass on some advice, but in a different fashion. The words I offer are not my own, but those of four men who have, in one way or another, shaped my life. Two of them passed from my life many years ago; one died just two years ago and the fourth is still very much alive and kicking. Their words—serious or amusing, erudite or simply heartfelt—have remained with me long after they were spoken.

Show me a man who knows where he’s going, and I’ll show you a man who is already there.”

While these words are attributed to Ernest Hemingway, I first heard them from my freshman English professor, Dr. Michael Reynolds, a noted Hemingway scholar.Because I was 18 at the time and clueless about nearly everything, I didn’t understand this statement, but its meaning became clear to me much later.

My moment of enlightenment came at an intersection as I was waiting for the light to change. Suddenly, I found myself saying, “I get it!  Now I know what Mike was saying to me all those years ago.” He was trying to explain that a person must think through an essay before attempting to write it. One does not just sit down and start writing; a good writer knows his or her destination before beginning the journey. Otherwise, the writer gets lost and rambles, much like a traveler without a map or navigation system.

These words became some of the best advice I ever received because they apply not only to writing, but to other tasks as well. If we all thought through our plans before implementing them, we might avoid a lot of chaos and heartache.

“I guess I just kept going.”

My maternal grandfather, who died over 25 years ago, said these words once while describing his life as a young husband and father in the early days of the Depression. His name was Os Barnes, and he was the closest thing to a saint that I am likely to encounter in this life (with the possible exception of my mother-in-law).He talked about the difficulty of finding work and about his fear that he would not be able to support his family. Eventually, his skill as a brick mason would take him as far away as West Virginia, where he built schools for the Works Progress Administration.

When I asked him how he managed to get through that difficult time, he took his cigar out of his mouth, smiled at me, and said very simply that he just kept going. 

My grandfather was a man of few words, but those words were worth hearing. His philosophy of survival was not scholarly or profound. He simply put one foot in front of the other, kept moving forward and never looked back. That attitude helped him to become a successful businessman, a devoted and much-loved father and grandfather and a respected member of his community.

“Locks are only for honest men.”

This was one of my father’s favorite sayings and I must have heard it a million times in my childhood. My dad was a practical man, in addition to being a wise one. He had an intuitive understanding of human nature. Like my grandfather (his father-in-law), he articulated his thoughts in a straightforward manner—there was nothing flowery or erudite about his speech. Whatever he thought, he said it plain and simple. 

What he thought about human behavior was this: People will do exactly what they want to do, regardless of any obstacles put in front of them, and our attempts to stop them usually fail. Locks only keep out honest folks, who aren’t going to steal from you in the first place.We can exert only so much control over our own lives and we certainly can’t control other people.

The longer I live, the more I appreciate my father’s common-sense approach to life.

“Just leave it alone.”

Last, but certainly not least, I offer my husband’s words of wisdom.One of his favorite quotations owes its genesis to an unlikely combination: Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, and “Tombstone”, the cowboy movie. In an east-meets-west mindset, my husband has taken theTaoistphilosophy of non-resistance and joined it with the fiercely independent spirit of the American West to createa hands-off approach to life. He is forever advising me either to leave something alone when my impulse is to intercede or to stand back and let situations run their own course instead of attempting to alter them.

After nearly 35 years of marriage, I have discovered that he is usually right.People don’t normally thank you for interfering in their business and interference has been known to make a bad situation even worse.

Four men. Four invaluable pieces of advice. And one woman lucky enough to benefit from all their wisdom.

Mary Zahran, who also knows some wise women, can be reached at maryzahran@gmail.com.