Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
March 10, 2002
Some men collect toys. They believe that at the end of life, the one with the most toys wins. I don’t buy that. I’m betting that the one with the best maxims will win.
Toys offer us no lasting guidelines for living. Maxims do. That’s what maxims are: sayings or proverbs that provide us wisdom for everyday life. Some well-known synonyms for the word maxim are adage, truism, or motto. Choose the word that feels comfortable for you. Just know that wise sayings are much more valuable than toys.
We all learn maxims early in life. An example or two: “Look both ways before you cross the street.” “Wrap up when it is cold outside.”
Parents have fun teaching their children maxims. Sometimes it takes a while for the little ones to master their mottos. One first-grade teacher invited her students to complete several famous sayings. She gave them only the first half of each one. Here is what they came up with:
“Better to be safe than – punch a fifth grader.”
“Strike while the – bug is close.”
“A miss is as good as – a mister.”
“Where there is smoke – there’s pollution.”
“Never underestimate the power of – termites.”
“Don’t bite the hand that – looks dirty.”
“It’s always darkest before – daylight savings time.”
“If at first you don’t succeed – get new batteries.”
“Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and – you’ll have to blow your nose.”
“If you lie down with dogs – you will stink in the morning.”
“A penny saved is – not much.”
Some of these humorous answers make us smile. They also reveal the difference that wise parents and teachers can make in a child’s life. I am sure that first-grade teacher must have laughed and said, “Thank God; these kids really do need my help!”
Sometimes maxims can be cruel. One example is this dictum an angry parent may share with a child: “If you don’t start studying, you will never amount to anything.” The erroneous assumption is that the child can have worth only by studying.
Maxims can also be cynical and detrimental to mental health. I met a 55-year-old man who was scarred as a youth by a dictum constantly spoken to him by his father: “Everything you do is half-right; you never do anything right.” His foolish father even nicknamed his son “Halfy.” The man wept as he told me how his father’s saying had ruined his life.
My own father gave me a number of maxims. One was “Hard work never killed anybody.” Others: “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” “A man’s word should be his bond.” “Never settle for less than your best.”
My grandfather, Seth Johnson, gave me one. Whenever I walked around with him on his farm near Montgomery, he would insist that I pick up and save even the least little thing I chanced to see: a washer, a screw, a rubber band, or a piece of string. Even now I can hear him saying, “Pick that up and save it, Walter Junior; you never know when you may need it.” To this day I am still living by that maxim.
I realize that the maxims my parents gave me have influenced my life. I am grateful for that. My father prized hard work. He taught me to do that. But years later I learned an even better maxim about work: “Work smarter, not harder.”
What maxims are important to you? What maxims did your parents teach you? By what sayings are you living your life? Make a list. Share it with a friend.
Better yet, if you dare, ask your children what maxims they have learned from you. Hopefully you will be blessed by their answer. If not, the good news is that as long as we have breath, we have the opportunity choose and live by the best maxims we can find.