The Street Where I Live

British by birth, New Yorker by nature.

The Quote That Changed My Life

Books & Words, Love and MarriageAlexandra king3 Comments
Roses, TSWIL

In my own way, I've always been a bit of a rabble rouser, with a casual disregard for what I regard to be illogical or needlessly oppressive rules. My rebel heart's first public outing was when I was seven years-old and I started a petition against my British primary school's rule that you could only have your rice pudding with a spoonful of jam, not honey. You could have jam or honey with your sandwich but you couldn't have it on your rice pudding. Why? Outrageous. Anyway, I went full Occupy on rice pudding-gate, circulating my jotter around the school bus for signatures and delivering passionate monologues by the swing set on the injustices of our lunch system. On the petition's discovery, after a particularly long day of canvasing, in which I had been lauding all of my signatures around the playground like one of those crazed Greenpeace clipboard campaigners, I received a brisk dressing down from the furious Headmistress for "rudeness" and was forced to apologize, shamefully, to a team of ruddy cheeked and corpulent lunch ladies (I like to think that in 2015 I would have been given a gold star for my civic spirit and commitment to democratic change). 

I'm happy to report that my rather infantile sort of faith in common sense and liberty has not waned one bit in the 20 years since I campaigned for improving rice pudding. I like good rules- escalator standers on the right, walkers on the left, no glass by the pool, vaccinating your child (not a rule yet, but it should be). But bad so-called 'rules'- having to invite all of your parent's friends to your wedding, imprisoning domestic abuse victims for longer than their abusersmandatory minimum drug sentences. Those are hard to stomach. Hard to react to. Hard to keep from hurting your heart. So hard. 

A few years ago, my wise father told me a quote that changed my life. It's not a flowery or uplifting or twee quote, it certainly would never make it onto a fridge magnet, but it's without a doubt the single phrase I come back to most often in my day to day life. It's the quote I throw most often at my friends, and a constant refrain in my mind on difficult days. Originally from German philosopher, poet, playwright and all-round Renaissance man babe  Friedrich Schiller's 1801 play Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans) it  goes like this.

" Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain"

Put simply, stupidity is powerful- but you cannot apply rational thought to an irrational system or person. Smart people or systems can be fixed. Dumb ones cannot. Isn't that just a startling, mind blowing, life changing statement? 

Our modern lives, with their cumbersome office environments, visa applications, tax returns, rental applications etc and so forth, can feel weighed down by mindless bureaucracy, meaning that we need a constant reminder of Schiller's simple truth. And it applies to our emotional lives and relationships too. Be it jealous colleagues, abusive relatives or spiteful ex-partners, it's tempting, particularly when you are a sensitive and good-hearted sort, to apply logic to difficult situations; to try and reason, to no agonizing avail, with your strung out and resentful supervisor or tyrannical maiden aunt, or whatever or whomever it might be, pointlessly railing against the injustice of an innately corrupt system or person.

Tina Fey, in her excellent must-read book Bossy Pants, is basically giving her best Schiller when she wrote the following brilliant career advice.

"My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you."

Like Tina says, it's not about surrendering to the rule, just acknowledging fully that it's stupid, and nothing to do with you. That brings you freedom to simply work around the problem or person. So next time HR chastises you for exceeding your photocopy allowance, or your Ryanair flight is cancelled five minutes before take off, or a family member finds cause to berate you for some unfair reason- remember. Against the stupid, the gods themselves contend in vain. Then quickly locate a gin and tonic, take a big deep breath and figure out your next move, because you've got this. Schiller's wise words set me free. I hope they do the same for you.