On Inspirational Quotations: What’s It All About?

There are so many motivating, stimulating and okay, I’ll have to say it, inspirational quotes around today: on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest…and many other forms of social media, with attractive or fittingly apt images attached for visual force to boost the power of the written word. And of course we have them in diaries and in dictionary collections, on T-shirts and posters, on plaques for the home, as tattoos, on key rings, and there are even collections online gleaned from particular authors’ specific books, to add to those handed down as a form of history from poets, writers, sages and philosophers through the ages, as well as those handed down in families…we all know ones like these: I want, never gets; Be careful what you wish for, or you might be disappointed; To thine own self be true; Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill; Least said, soonest mended….in order to exert some kind of order to life, even to the point of manipulation. For example, least said, soonest mended seems to be a nice way out of having a discussion to solve a problem, taking the easy way out. But despite some quotes being a little ludicrous and despite the argument  – why should what Henry James has to say, or some other acclaimed writer, be any better than what Joe Blogs down the road can come up with, it’s still safe to say that quotations and wise sayings are more popular now than ever before. They are generally supportive and well-intentioned, easy to disseminate, and most of us seem to love reading them, but why? What’s it all about? When you look at the empty quotation box above, does it feel as if you’ve been short-changed because it’s saying nothing? That the empty space needs to be filled?

I think I’ve always been passionate about collecting quotes. When I was in my early twenties, I would hand-write them out in lists, searching for little dazzling jewels that that resonated with me, that empowered me in some way, or served as reassurance that I was not alone in my perspective, thoughts or feelings. Such wise words to ponder, that had been written so long ago, had an authority, an influential provenance one could respect, if one agreed with the meaning intended. I would read a little book of quotations, namely Collins Gem Dictionary of Quotations, which I still have, and taking a glance through now I can see all the stars in biro where I’ve marked ones I liked. At this level of interest, the passion was containable, and so it remained when I came across more quotes in psychology, philosophy, or personal development books. But when I hit Twitter, this last year, I faltered, I wobbled, my faith teetered on the brink of cynicism in the face of such excess, such abundance, such gluttony…and I realised that the commanding nature of individual quotations can be undermined by such a surfeit of wisdom. Like mining for diamonds and finding nothing but diamonds, where the value depreciates due to the surplus; like walking on a beach loaded with pretty pebbles but where you’re unable to choose which few to pocket to add to your collection at home, because there are so many to choose from; or when you’re fruit picking, where at first you see just a few ripe blackberries, but as your eyes adjust, they find more and more still, to feast on, until your hands drip with their juice as you try to ‘get them all’. Now I know we still have some personal control over choosing ones that ‘fit’ with us, as opposed to those that don’t, but nevertheless we are awash with quotations. If Twitter is anything to go by, we could be drowning in them, yet we’d still be seeking another one to serve as a life raft to  ‘save’ us.

So we certainly relish them, but we seem to actually need them for a host of different reasons. We need them for a different perspective in times of stress or trouble. For example, This too shall pass is a great one to get through tough periods in our lives, as well as reminding us to savour the good times, because they too will pass. We need them as affirmations of what we have worked out for ourselves the hard way, and hey, how wonderful, someone else actually get’s it! Or we need them as meditational-like mantras for ourselves to chant as quick reminders of a more complex message, or as succinct prompts when we get confused or find it difficult to make a decision, such as Whatever will be , will be and Everything happens for a reason, which I just automatically trotted out today while listening to a neighbour telling me about a problem. We use them to help us take action, to keep us motivated, to arm us with resilience, to help us attain inner peace, but also to adopt a whole different philosophy with its own kind of language, with quotes to distill down the doctrines and principles as quickly accessed reminders. The Taoist saying of ‘Go with the flow’, which is a favourite of mine,  is a good example here, meaning to go with the flow of your own nature, not to passively go with the flow of anything happening around you, which is the context it’s frequently used in. This is a good example of how sayings can also be appropriated for other uses, as well as to help us change to be a better self by adopting a certain philosophy. These quotes have the ability in their brevity to strike us deeply with certain insights, which otherwise we’d be struggling to put into words ourselves. That is why I still am, despite teetering on Twitter, a fervent fan of ‘inspirational’ quotes.

I did have to change my approach though. I think the key is to be highly selective and keep safe the ones that have worked for you before, that sum up your core life beliefs and your values, that somehow represent what you have now, at this time in your life, come to stand for. I also use them in my writing as handed down familial sayings within the psyche of some of my characters, which they may agree with or rail against.  Also as an artist, I find, quotes with a strong visual image which you can quickly apply, have even more power.

So I am setting myself the challenge of choosing my top five favourite quotes, which apply to the creative life as well as the personal, with a few having a strong visual image to reinforce them:

1. Bend like a reed in the wind (of mixed origins) Being flexible with adversity, or conflict, or criticism, learning how to ‘take it’ in a mode of acceptance, and not fight against it. If you resist with rigidity, you may break. This shorter quote may have been derived from Confucius in this sense: “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”

2. And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom (Anais Nin). It’s no good being afraid of ‘flowering’ with your creative life, because if you hold on for too long to what’s inside you, wanting to be expressed, then it becomes more painful a situation than doing the work and taking the risk of its exposure to the world.

3. Go with the flow – as above, in it’s true sense. Embrace what you are and what is happening to you, and in a broader way, in a kind of alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world.

4. In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. (Albert Camus, existentialist) So, if you go to the lowest points of your life and feel there is nothing, and have this happen a few times, there will come a time when you realise that all the while you have within you the power to survive, grow, and flourish. That in fact, there is a point to going to this wintry place, so that you can change for the better. So it’s about resilience, and as creatives , who put ourselves on the line in the way others don’t have to, and who necessarily have to be open to criticism, we need to learn to be resilient, and that there actually can be a great sense of freedom for us within this.

5. Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.  (Gandhi) This is for when, as creatives, we lose heart sometimes and ask ourselves these old chestnuts – Why am I bothering? What’s the point? What will it amount to in the whole scheme of things? When we know that, the harsh fact is, there are masses of writers and masses of artists, and we may never make our mark the way we intend, no matter how hard we work at it. But that, nevertheless, it is still important to do our work, for our sense of ourselves, for our self respect, and because it is who we are.

Okay, that’s me done for this week, feel free to pick out your pebbles and share any quotes you love!

(pics from Pixabay)

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