More Modern Lessons from Mark Twain

About a year ago, I published a piece called “Modern Lessons from Mark Twain,” in which I looked with a fresh perspective on some of Twain’s classic aphorisms. For this week’s column, I’ve chosen a few more of them:

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

I use this phrase all the time, especially around people who don’t know the value of shutting up. People who are insecure or who seek validation tend to run off at the mouth. It may be that they struggle to understand, but it could also be that they are unable to clearly articulate their needs. Whatever the reason, many times silence is more powerful than mindless, space-filling chatter. People who can’t shut up don’t know what to do with the space that silence creates. Silence might be the most effective weapon against pointless prattling. It also works well when you know a person is wrong. Shut up and let them prove it. Try not answering a Facebook post when someone says something you don’t like, and see what happens.

When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.

When I smash my thumb, “darn” just doesn’t do the job. I tell my students that swear words have a purpose and that in the right context, they are a powerful tool of rhetoric and argument. However, used in the wrong context, they can damage an argument beyond redemption. I might say “dammit” when I drop my phone, but I’d never say it in front of my grandmother. I also try not to swear too often, because curse words lose impact with frequency. Let me give you an example: my friends Mark and Dale. Mark sprinkles the “f” word liberally into every sentence, whereas I have heard Dale use maybe five curse words in the 15 years I have known him. Around Mark, I am desensitized to the impact of the “f” word, so when he gets emphatic about something, it’s hard to see a shift in his feelings because there is little shift in his language. Dale, on the other hand, only curses when he is angry, so I know if I hear him use a curse word, I’d better listen. Think about how many curse words you use in a day, and when. Are they having the effect you want?

The best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer somebody else up.

One of the best ways to deal with grief is to volunteer to help someone in need; dozens of studies prove this. For instance, I have a friend who volunteers every week at a Buddhist temple, serving meals and caring for indigent people. She is busy with school and a new job, but she makes a point to stop and give to others once a week. Giving to others, whether it be of time, talent, or goods, can help lighten the worst of moods and can, over time, help with depression and anxiety. It doesn’t take much effort to spend time helping someone else, and best of all, it’s free.

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

I hear this phrase so often that I’m sure people don’t even know the words are Twain’s. When confronted with the truth, denial is a way of coping for some people. The trouble with denial, though, is that although it may work well in the short term, maybe to get someone off your back, it has horrible effects in the long term. Procrastination combined with denial is a recipe for disaster. With time, things change; if you deny a problem for too long, the situation may resolve itself in a way that you neither like nor can control. Especially in today’s fast-paced world, it’s better to face your problems and take charge of them, than to let time decide for you.

I can live for two months on a good compliment.

It’s amazing how this phrase still resonates, even in a world of Twitter and Facebook. Some people’s self-esteem is built on how many followers they have; Twain is probably rolling in his grave over that idea. Compliments seem to have gone by the wayside in favor of “likes,” and that saddens me. Yes, because of social media we can stay in contact with a much broader range of people, but he’s right—nothing beats a good compliment. It makes both the speaker and the listener feel good. So, the next time you’re on Facebook, instead of just “liking” someone’s inane cat meme, shoot them a few kind words. Doing so only takes a moment, and it lets them know you’re thinking more deeply about them than just a thumbs-up.

A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.

Most modern kids have been reading since first grade, and have had phonemic awareness since they were toddlers, so they may think reading is something they were born doing. The concept of illiteracy, that reading is a choice, is foreign to them. But many kids struggle with reading because they are used to information being fed to them through electronics. Studies show that kids can increase comprehension and reading level all by themselves if they just read for an hour a day. To adults who read regularly, an hour is a short sacrifice with a long-term payoff. To kids in today’s world, reading is mind-numbing labor. 

Two of my former students have a family together, and for about a year I have been helping their daughters with reading skills. To combat the distracting world of electronics around them, I decided to try to get these girls to read in three 20-minute bursts of time each day, rather than asking for an hour. I took them to the library and told them they could check out as many books as they wanted (they were amazed that the books were free to use), but that they had to choose enough to get them through the week. I told them the only way to get over reading difficulties is to just keep doing it. Most of the issues will work themselves out through sheer repetition. I know they won’t have much concept of Twain’s remarks about illiteracy, but hopefully I can change their habits a little and get them to put aside their electronics for an hour a day to focus on a book. Well…I can dream.

Twain’s words still resonate in modern society, as evidenced by how many people use his words and don’t even know he said them. A trademark on his aphorisms may have netted the man a fortune, although he neither wanted nor needed one. Twain was a simple guy who enjoyed simple pleasures: a good cigar, a good friend, and a good story.