Post 305

Spanish Proverbs:
Reflections on Fourteen Favourites

Luis Iscla Rovira wrote Spanish Proverbs: A Survey of Spanish Culture and Civilization (In 2850 Proverbs). Mr. Rovira was born in 1917. I don’t know if he’s still alive. If he is, please tell him I said hello.

I enjoyed his book. I went through the proverbs, and I especially liked certain ones.

Why do we like certain proverbs? We like them because we find them to be true. It’s fun to find that your experience matches a proverb that someone once made and which others remembered. And the reason the funny ones are funny is because they capture something true. And the poignant ones express truth too, just in a different way.

What do you think of this one?

Al establecerse en una isla, el primer edificio que levanta el espańol es una iglesia; el francés un fuerte; el holandés una factorIa, y el inglés una taberna.
(After taking up residence on an island, the first building a Spaniard raises is a church; the French a fort; the Dutch a commercial agency, and the British a pub.)

Or how about this one?

“En la peleteria de Burgos, nos veremos,” dijo una zorra al despedirse de otra.
(“In the fur shop of Burgos we shall meet again,” said one fox while bidding goodbye to another.)

So I have been meaning, for quite a while, to share my favorites with you. This is how you count to fourteen in Spanish: uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez, once, doce, trece, catorce.

Quien poco sabe, presto lo reza.
The more one knows, the less one boasts of his knowledge.

And I want to say:
Boasting is an interesting phenomenon, because people already are very selective about what they reveal about themselves. They already tend to reveal the good stuff and hide the bad. And there are so many variations on this. Some of the clever ones reveal some of the bad so that you think they’re revealing all the bad. Others exaggerate the bad so that you will contradict them, and tell them how good they are. Some of them hide the good so that they will fit in better with others.

I think two things matter when we think about boasting.

First, context matters. Someone recently sent me, out of the blue, an email entitled, “Thirty years later,” intending to remind me (and a few others) that it had been thirty years since he received a certain award. He had already told me about this award, and I had already expressed my admiration in person a few years ago. You would think that would have been enough, but I guess it’s not.

Maybe I’ll get another such email in 2029, and 2039.

Or maybe it’s a five year kind of thing: 2024, 2029, 2034 . . .

Sometimes revealing something good about yourself fits with a larger point that is worth making. You are putting such-and-such a fact into service. That’s context. You might tell someone about your successes because you want to encourage them to succeed in the same way, for example. What is not acceptable is for you to seize on any noun, verb or adjective in the conversation, and pretend that now you have the context to boast. Did someone say airplane? That reminds me of the time I was on an airplane and I spoke to someone famous! Did someone say theatre? That reminds me of the time I directed my own show! Did someone say Europe? Let me remind you about the time I travelled! That’s not context. That’s just boasting at any opportunity. And trying to talk about something which is so unconnected to the lives of your listeners, and so long ago (yes, I know it feels like yesterday), is a sign that you are currently not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. How is it that you’re so absorbed with what you did so long ago? Look, while you boast about what has been, the successful are thinking about what they plan to do next — fix the screen door, make gazpacho, write some lyrics, finish the errands, start a novena, weed the garden.

And as a homage to St. Josemaria Escriva on this Spanish-themed post, let me say again that doing good and wholesome things pays dividends beyond the obvious. For one thing, skill builds on skill. As a housewife makes one good meal after the next, she becomes more knowledgeable. By the time she’s middle-aged, you’ll be only too happy to sit at her table. For another, honest deeds done with good intentions are pleasing to God, and God may use work in one area (what is considered “small”) as preparation for work in another (what is considered “great”).

Second, truth is an issue when we address the issue of boasting. I won’t discuss false boasts — that is just another form of lying. What I will say is that people often overestimate their ability and their achievements, because they are familiar with their own, but unfamiliar with those of other people. But are you really more intelligent than others? Are you really more skilled than others? Are you really a better whatever than others? I remember how I used to notice that in the announcement section of newspapers, the biggest look-at-what-my-daughter-did photographs and descriptions were from those families where the daughter finished an education degree or a nursing degree. You rarely saw such notices for the families where the daughter had finished medical school, for instance. Now don’t get me wrong. Some people were meant to be nurses, and some people were meant to be teachers — that part is okay, but the boasting suggested to me that perhaps these families weren’t used to having someone on their family tree earn a degree. It was a novelty.

The Spanish quotation shows that part of knowing a lot is knowing that there are so many people who have accomplished so much more than you have. I think it happens far too often (I saw it frequently) that while one person in a room boasts about what she has done and seen and been, another person, who has accomplished and seen and been so much more, does not boast at all. Which person would you rather be?

Mirados desde el tendido, todos los toros son chicos.
Viewed from the stands, all bulls are small.

And I want to say:
The biggest battles are spiritual. There is nothing more difficult than doing what is right when everything goes against it. And when I say “everything,” I mean both external and internal forces. After all, the greatest opposition to doing what is right is so often within your own mind, heart, and soul. There can be, indeed, agony involved in fighting the natural impulse to flee, to hide, or in some way — any way — to avoid what is difficult. Who can stand his ground when the bull charges? And this is how we can understand the biblical idea that the way to heaven is narrow. Often, doing the right thing leaves only one or two options, and both feel excruciatingly difficult. Doing the wrong thing appears easier in the moment, and how many ways there are to do the wrong thing! There are a wide variety of ways to avoid doing right. The road to hell is wide.

Yet, as with battles of all kinds, how true it is that those who rarely require themselves to fight the spiritual battles have a mistaken idea of how it feels. These cowards do not know what it is to fight, but they also do not know how it feels to triumph.

Más te ama quien te hace bueno que quien te agrada.
A person who helps you to be good loves you more than a person whose only concern is to please you.

And I want to say:
Trying to please another person can be a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on your motive. What are you trying to do? Do you actually care about this person? Or do you hope to continue receiving some benefits from him/her, or hope to receive a future benefit? Or are you just wanting to avoid uncomfortable feelings or awkward social situations? Or are you behaving in a way that suits your view of yourself?

The truth is that sooner or later, every close relationship will be put to the test, and you will have to decide between saying what is true and saying what is “nice.” Now, if I want you to be good — which I do — I might have to tell you what is true. Will that please you?

Si mal me quiere, peor me querrá a quien dijere la verdad.
He who does not like me now will like me even less for telling the truth about him.

And I want to say:
I saw sayings to the effect that you can destroy a friendship with the truth, and to the effect that ‘my friends do not like me because I tell the truth,’ but they are not quite right. A good friendship has a solid foundation, and it is, in fact, strengthened by the truth, not weakened. The stem of a flower becomes stronger as the breezes and winds blow. It can be difficult to hear unpleasant truths, but a true friend understands your intentions. Your intention is not to wound, but to say what is true, in order to have an honest exchange of ideas, thoughts, and emotions, and to ultimately grow closer. That’s what friendship is about. Over time, your friend will trust you above all other companions who say only what they believe your friend wants to hear. And as for you, it is your false friends who will fall away when you speak the truths that they don’t want to hear. They will leave because they didn’t actually like you in the first place, as the quotation states. They were there only for the benefits.

La envidia sigue al mérito, como la sombra al cuerpo.
Envy follows worth as a shadow follows a body.

Si los envidioso volaran, siempre estariamos a la sombra.
If the envious could fly, we would always be in the shade.

And I want to say:
These quotations are wise. They show how common envy is. I did not perceive the prevalence of envy, and I was unfamiliar with its manifestations. I did not know how it lurked in so many hearts, and dominated them. I knew that where you find two female friends growing up almost as sisters, you will most likely find competition and envy, and I knew that sisters-in-law and cousins are frequently competitive, but I did not perceive the extent to which envy exists within families. I did not know that many grandmothers envy their granddaughters. I did not know that many men envy their sons. I did not know that a father could envy his daughter. Oh, envy! Poison for humanity, fuel for so many actions!

Do you know why I did not understand how common envy was? I will tell you. It is because when I found envy in my own heart, I loathed it, and argued with it until I subdued it. I found a way to be at peace with someone else having something nice (an object, a relationship, a talent, etc) that I didn’t have. I could argue with myself like this: a) she is a good person, and it is good that she has this; b) she has suffered so much in other ways, so it is good that she has this; c) I don’t want this; d) I don’t need this; e) her accomplishment is praiseworthy, and I can feel fortunate to know such a person; f) God has given her this special talent — who am I to challenge that? g) she has earned it by making sacrifices that I wouldn’t be willing to make; h) perhaps later I will have such a thing or something similar; i) perhaps God knows it wouldn’t be good for me to have such a thing; j) such things are fleeting; k) I have other things instead; l) maybe there are hidden disadvantages or burdens associated with having it; m) even though I can’t have it all to myself, I can enjoy seeing it from time to time; n) even though I can’t have it all to myself, I can be glad that such a thing exists/has been done.

So I can say that envy was not, and is not, a part of my life. Instead, I am able to be genuinely happy for what other people have (with the exception of cases where they have stolen it). I don’t have to own or personally have things in order to enjoy them.

De almas bien templadas es no tener envidia de nadie.
The privilege of self-restrained and generous people is not to envy anyone.

And I want to say:
I like this proverb, of course. I don’t think you would normally make a connection between “self-control” and freedom from envy, but, as I have discussed, envy can be subdued, if not eradicated altogether (it will, of course, attempt to arise all the time, like all temptations), with examination and control of one’s thoughts.

Más vale guerra abierta que paz fingida.
An open war is preferable to a sham peace.

And I want to say:
Canadians, in particular, live in a world of false peace. We sacrifice truth in order to appear ‘polite,’ and ‘nice.’ I have spoken about this before. In the context of relationships, which is what this comment is about, I would rather know that my enemies are my enemies than be fooled by the appearance of friendship. The worst damage is always done by those who pretend to love you.

Quien no te ama, en la plaza te difama.
He who does not love you, discredits you in public.

And I want to say:
Let’s make a distinction here, based on both truth and motive. One speaker tells the truth in order warn the innocent, and in order to spur evil-doers to reconsider and reform their ways. Another speaker invents what is false in order to make the innocent look bad. The first speaker is motivated by love for the sinner, the innocent, and the truth. The second speaker loves neither the innocent person nor the truth.

Donde hay hijos, ni parientes ni amigos.
Relatives and friends are not welcome when parents want to enjoy the company of their children.

And I want to say:
It is a sad but general rule that a parent will feel self-conscious and on guard when there are observers nearby, in the form of relatives and friends (or strangers). Thinking about what others will think causes the parents to experience some level of stress, and they often cannot properly enjoy their own children.

Likewise, children notice that relatives and the friends of their parents introduce a new atmosphere, new standards, and new methods of interacting which are usually unfamiliar, often odd, and sometimes unpleasant. Yet at the same time, the child also notices that his parents and these others appear to have a warm relationship, and he does not know where he fits in the arrangement. If the parents emphasize the importance of these guests (“We have to clean up! Auntie is coming!” “Remember to speak nicely to Grandpa!” “Make sure you share all your toys with your cousins!”) and imply that the child’s wishes and needs must take second place to the wishes and needs of these relatives and friends, then the child will not fully communicate with his own parents when issues arise, believing that his own parents will take the side of their friends, their friends’ children, or the relatives. Further, the child may believe that these relatives and family friends are a permanent part of family life, and that speaking up about difficulties or issues or preferences will change nothing. All of this is unfortunate. The lines of communication should always be open. Every child should know that he is a priority for the parents. Every child should understand that his views about these outsiders (for that is what they are) is always welcome. A child should know that changes can be made to the patterns of family life to better take care of the child, who is, after all, the vulnerable one.

El galán que no hiere firme, despedirle.
Get rid of a suitor who does not try hard enough.

And I want to say:
I worry for the women whose boyfriends do not appreciate and cherish them. It’s never good when the man is lazy, lukewarm, or apathetic towards the one who is supposed to be the love of his life. If he doesn’t have enthusiasm, energy and action at the beginning, when will he have it? Nowadays women do not value themselves sufficiently; they accept very poor treatment from men in the hopes that it will all work out in the end, but the standards are best set at the outset of a relationship. Show him that you will not compromise your morals, and that you are worth his best efforts. Why waste time with or settle for a man who believes himself to be entitled to so much for so little?

La que se casa con un viudo, rival tiene en el otro mundo.
The woman who marries a widower has a rival in the other world.

And I want to say:
This is an interesting thought. It is true that a man would remember his first wife, and make comparisons frequently.

But the situation nowadays, in the age of divorce, is far worse. Nowadays, rivals are alive and well, as people marry other people’s husbands and wives regularly.

Más vale quien Dios ayuda que quien mucho madruga.
He whom God helps does more than he who rises early.

And I want to say:
We sometimes think of God as remote. We imagine humanity on earth, doing its own thing. We sometimes imagine that there are two types. On the one side are the hard workers who wake up early, eat all the right foods, and live punctual, righteous lives. On the other side are the indulgent slackers, who are unfocused, inefficient and suffer the consequences of their poor choices.

This proverb reminds us that God is active. He watches, and he knows. He knows that things are not how they seem. He knows that some of those hard workers are thinking only of themselves, and that they are overly careful about their routines and are stingy with their time for others and for God. He knows that some of those who don’t rise early are busy with his work, and busy doing things that are pleasing to him.

So what are you doing? If what you do is pleasing to God, then God will help you with it, and you will be doing more than those who rise early. Human standards of efficiency and productivity — can these even be compared to the activities of the Creator, who made everything and who keeps everything alive and in motion? He directs the course of our spinning earth on its rocket ride around the sun. Can he not help those who do his work?

La que por mí se desvela, esa es mi madre y mi abuela.
The woman who watches over me carefully is my true mother and grandmother.

And I want to say:
This proverb speaks about intention. Who is a mother? A woman who carefully watches over someone acts as a mother, and can be called the true mother and grandmother. The implication is that a woman who does not care about her child is not the true mother or grandmother of that child.

Who is your mother?

You have the same mother that I have. Remember what Jesus said? As he died, Jesus said, “Behold your mother.” With these words, Jesus made Mary the mother of all of us. She watches over you and me carefully. She is our true mother.