Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There
Turning Old Clichs to New Maxims
By Richard Eyre

Some of the catchy little sayings, proverbs, or little notions of traditional wisdom that people (and society) have been repeating to us over the years don’t work anymore.  In fact, they aren’t true anymore.  In fact, they’ve become part of the problem, rather than part of any solution.  And they’re not just cute little clichs or harmless, old-fashioned platitudes.  No!  They have worked their way into our subconscious and influenced our attitudes.  They often prompt unrealistic expectations, turn us into dissatisfied perfectionists, or give us inaccurate perceptions of the world around us.

They also produce stress.

Some of these old clichs or accepted bits of “wisdom” never were any good – never were accurate and never worked.  Others were fine once but simply don’t fit with today.  This column will seek to expose a few of the old clichs for what they are – outdated philosophies or inaccurate insights posing as wisdom.  Then it replaces the used-up notions with some updated maxims – little statements that reflect our world as it really is, and our lifestyles as they really ought to be.

Clich: An old piece of hackneyed or stereotyped “wisdom” which has become trite and meaningless.  Taken from the French clicher, which refers to printing from a metal plate which clamps down and repeatedly produces a stereotyped image.

Maxim: A useful and practical catchphrase which states a current truth in a way that gives insight and has a beneficial influence on how we see things and how we do things.  Taken from the Latin maxima proposition, which means “greatest statement” or a sound general truth.

So we’ll take a clich like, “Don’t just sit there, do something,” and turn it around into a maxim that works in today’s over-programmed, stressed out world. “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

A Tough Challenge

It’s not easy to challenge some of the best-known and oft-quoted clichs in the world – sayings that frequently seem to carry within them a wisdom of the ages.  It’s difficult, and often unpopular, to disagree with any “traditional wisdom” – with notions or ideas that have become part of our collective way of thinking.

And it’s downright dangerous to take on your mother-in-law, your college professor, your own father, and the time-management experts of the world – all at once.

But with due respect to them all, that’s what this column will do.  Just as we can learn a lot about a particular time by studying its arts or its fashion, we can learn about ourselves by thinking about the clichs – the traditional and accepted wisdom – the most of us grew up with.  And we can appreciate how fast our world is changing by realizing how much alteration some of these clichs need in order to serve us well in today’s world.

Remodeling Old Sayings to Fit Today

I don’t actually have anything personal against the old clichs.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with most of them.  Many of them were once practical and wise – just as the people who coined them – just as the people who used them.  (See …I really don’t want to argue with my mother-in-law.)

You see, it’s not these sayings or those people who have changed.  It’s the times and the circumstances in which we live.

Some of the old clichs simply fit better (and worked better) in an older time.

Please don’t think that I’m suggesting or advocating a changing morality.  Right and wrong do not change.  There are values that are both universal and eternal.  But circumstances and situations and options do change.  And the world has never known a time when they were changing faster!

In days gone by, life was simpler, and so was wisdom.  Separating everything into “things worth doing well” and “things not worth doing it all” worked better in a time with fewer options, fewer demands.  Laziness was differently defined in a day when work was physical and “doing something” was always better than “sitting there.”  And the rule of “work before play” was perfectly practical when cows needed milking or work required daylight.

Today, in our stressful and complex lives, play sometimes needs prioritizing over work – and frequently the most productive thing we can do is “sit there” – and there are a great many things that are worth doing, but just barely!

What we need in our new and more flexible world is a different set of paradigms – different ways of looking at life, and at the art of living it – fresh maxims to live by.

It’s the Attitude

We work a lot today on our techniques – on the methods by which we do things and on the tools and technology we use.  “Improvement” is often thought of as a better invention, and “progress” as a better procedure.  But real growth, real improvement, and real progress only happen when attitudes change, when we learn to change how we look at our situations and how we think about our lives.

It is our attitudes that control what we see from day to day, what we put into our lives, and what we get out of them.  And our attitudes are formed, to a rather amazing extent, by the little proverbs and platitudes that we accept as “truth.”  These columns, then, are about changing our minds, changing how we think and changing what we think of as “wisdom.”

Each of the columns that will appear here (one each fortnight) is titled and begun with the old clich and then concluded with the new maxim.  In most cases I think you will find that the old saying prompts feelings of worry or guilt, while the new one frees and energizes.  I’ve been rather personal (maybe dangerously so) in attributing the old clichs to the people in my own life who used them on me, and I’ve tried to explain my own changing attitudes through personal experiences that I hope parallel your own.

So with advance acknowledgments and peace offerings to moms, dads, teachers, coaches, employers, advisers, bumper stickers, and all of yesterday’s clichs, let’s look for some new sayings that help us make sense of today and maybe (for a little while) of tomorrow.  Join me here every two weeks!

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