Becoming Wiser Through Proverbs and Stories

Our personal experiences transform our way of seeing the world. So does the “call of story”—the poems, stories, and proverbial sayings we hear or read throughout our lifetimes. Indeed, most of us can cite a proverb, the message of a book, or even a ritual we’ve experienced that changed our world-view. Stories are powerful mechanisms that call us to reflect on the human condition.  Culture to culture, proverbs (often called wisdom literature) bare an uncanny resemblance to one another.  Most proverbs reflect the lessons learned by those who lived long before us. T. A. Perry describes them as follows:

Like bottles sculpted in bygone eras and cast upon the seas, proverbs survive the damages of time and carry messages of hidden treasure. . . . Strange enough, we long to drink from these time-capsules, as if their antiquated shapes and colors could magically transform our sour experiences into the sweet liqueur of wisdom.
(Perry, 1993, p. xi)

Throughout time, many cultures have contributed to the existing literature—with prescriptions for life and change—in the form of parables, fables, proverbs, anecdotes and short stories that “epitomize principles of correct living, embody moral pronouncements, and contain crucial information about their society” (Holliday & Chandler, 1986, p. 11).   These oral and literary rhetorical “vehicles” can challenge our assumptions, cause us to  reflect on our behaviors, transform our thinking, and, perhaps, help us become wiser as we come to more fully understand the human condition. They serve as powerful learning vehicles for personal growth and increased understanding—i.e., transformative learning. These “triggers” encourage personal reflection. Throughout a person’s life, the goal is to gradually  increase in understanding and wisdom and to eventually reach his or her maximum potential.  Not many of us arrive at this point.

But there are cultures that do encourage reaching that goal.  J. G. Peristiany (1992) studied the Greek village of Alona, in the highlands of Cyprus, between the years of 1954 and 1983. Representing remnants of an ancient Greek culture, Alona is an inclusive community; it has not changed much over the centuries. In this simple village, the leaders of the community are the schoolteacher, the priest, the heads of the wealthiest families and an individual who is neither elected nor appointed—the sophron.  The sophron’s job description is similar to that of an ideal educator. He (the sophron is always a man) is the sage or wise man of the village. Functioning as a mediator, a facilitator, and a guide, the sophron arbitrates for the people of Alona how to live in reality while striving to live an ideal. “The sophron’s wisdom consists of applying general principles to particular cases in such a manner that the general is not seen to bend so as to serve practical ends.

“. . . What distinguishes the wise from the merely knowledgeable is that the wise man knows not
only the rules but also how to apply them for the common good” (Peristiany, 1992, p. 105).

Peristiany describes the typical sophron, including the following characteristics:

• The sophron “can neither order nor decide, he can only advise” (p. 105),
• The sophron “uses received wisdom more than he contributes to it” (p. 105),
• The sophron is the “servant of the community and the mouthpiece of wisdom” (p. 105),
• The sophron is not trained for or appointed to his position in the village. “ [He has] the image of a selfless and judicious man who applies these qualities to the welfare of his community” (p. 114),
• The sophron “is of old age”; and “his everyday actions . . . are those of a sensible
average man” (p. 116).

The most important action of the sophron, for this analysis, is that the sophron gives advice to anyone seeking his wisdom by relating well-known parables and aphorisms, and allowing the person to apply the principles contained therein to his or her own situation. His parables, proverbs, and aphorisms are like “master keys” to problems that occur in the actual lives of villagers.

Another example is found in the Chagga, an indigenous people residing in Tanzania in East Africa.  These people live their lives holistically and believe that life, from birth to death, involves a process of formation, reformation, and transformation. Their educational process is called ipvunda. Ipvunda means “to mold, to form, to raise up a person in all aspects: physical, intellectual, and moral, with special emphasis on the moral aspect. It is forming a person so comprehensively that he or she will be prepared to face life and the world successfully throughout life” (Mosha, 2000, p. 16).

What are considered the important things to learn from this process? The dispositions of reverence, respect, self-control, generosity, and honesty underlie other values. These are taught through stories (exclusively to those under 14), rituals, and proverbs.  The Chagga cherish their proverbs and stories.

Proverbs are, for the Chagga people, one of their four treasured possessions: land, cattle, water, and proverbs. Land, cattle, and water nourish their economy and bodies, whereas proverbs (wisdom, enlightenment, inspiration) nourish their moral integrity”            (Mosha, 2000, p. 56).

The proverb is an efficient tool in the ipvunda process. It is efficient because it is short, usually witty, pleasant to listen to, and thus easy to remember. Moreover, it contains the wisdom of the past. It causes a person to reflect and then motivates him or her to act in a moral way. Thus, proverbs are quoted on all occasions.  They are “powerful, effective, sharp-like arrows, that penetrate into a person’s deepest core” (Mosha, 2000, p. 57).

World-wide, proverbs function in similar ways.

Storytelling is an art among the Chagga. The skill of telling stories in a way that transforms others is developed in many ways, among them giftedness, age, practice and experience. Transformational learning practitioners have much to learn from the Chagga, who use the linguistic skills of metaphor, imagery, and similitude in motivating and challenging their listeners to remember and imagine all sorts of possibilities for their lives.  People are all ears during storytelling, ready not only to be entertained but also to get a “lesson” for life. Similarly when the family is seated around the fire in the normally chilly evenings of northern Tanzania, they are ready to hear a word of wisdom from parents and grandparents. The presence of elders also is a teachable moment. The presence of elders evokes reverence, confidence, and a hunger for “a word from the wise.” All these are teachable moments, and indigenous parents and elders are aware of their formative potential ”  (Mosha, 2000, p. 20)

Through reflection on their stories and treasured proverbs, Chagga individuals grow to know themselves and their potentialities.

Another group of people, the indigenous Native American tribe of Cibecue Apaches in Arizona, use story attached to a location, or place. Keith Basso, an anthropologist, has spent years among this people. He found that Western Apache believe that “wisdom sits in places” and that remembering the stories associated with specific places will assist one in becoming wise. His book, Wisdom Sits in Places (1996) discusses aspects of Western Apache life in Cibecue, Arizona, including their concept of wisdom. Basso relates that story and ritual are used to help individuals reflect on their behaviors.

Place is paramount. Stories of past events and the “voices” of the ancestors are attached to specific places on their lands, and nearby. These stories describe important principles and values, which will allow a person to live a good life and avoid problems. When someone commits an infraction, instead of confronting the perpetrator directly, the name of a place is merely mentioned by others, stirring the memory of the wrongdoer to recall the moral lesson of the story associated with that particular place. Other chastisements are usually unnecessary.  Every time the person passes by the place, or hears its name uttered, he or she is reminded of the story. As one Apache man related:

This is what we know about our stories. They go to work on your mind and make
you think about your life. Maybe you’ve not been acting right. Maybe you’ve
been stingy. Maybe you’ve been chasing after women. Maybe you’ve been
trying to act like a whiteman. People don’t like it! So someone goes hunting for
you—maybe your grandmother, your grandfather, your uncle. It doesn’t matter.
Anyone can do it. . . . So someone stalks you and tells a story about what
happened long ago. It doesn’t matter if other people are around—you’re going to
know he’s aiming that story at you. All of a sudden it hits you! It’s like an arrow,
they say. . . . No one says anything to you, only that story is all, but now you
know that people have been watching you and talking about you. They don’t like
how you’ve been acting. So you have to think about your life. . . . That story is
changing you now, making you want to live right. That story is making you want
to . . . live better. . . . The names of all these places are good. They make you
remember how to live right.” (Basso, 1996, p. 58-59)

Just what is it about proverb and story that changes lives and transforms thoughts?   Proverbs present a unique viewpoint. They enlarge our horizons of the possible. They transform our view of the world—even if slightly. Stories and proverbs serve as “triggers” to bring about critical self-reflection, really trying to examine one’s life. Through stories, models of admirable lives are held up to inspection, with contemptible lives seen in opposition. People learn through others’ examples and life stories without having to personally experience everything themselves.

Stories told at the feet of a trusted adult mentor can help the hearer become wiser, especially if listeners are led to think critically about the story. Most of us living in contemporary western cultures no longer gather each evening around the family “fire” to hear the wise stories and parables of our heritage. Instead, often alone, we sit by the bluish glow of a television set or computer screen. Television, Internet, movies, CD and DVD recordings, and the like, are the current methods for delivering often mixed cultural messages. But do these stories promote our healthy growth as human beings? Do such stories challenge our incorrect assumptions—or present us with more? Do they inspire us to transform our lives? Do they lead us toward wisdom? Do they use the “light” we have inherited—the parables and stories of the past—to guide our actions and thoughts toward a successful future?

I believe we need more time-honored stories and parables in our lives—just as we need more wisdom. The story is the basic form of human cognition—it speaks to both parts of our mind, our reason and our emotion. The most influential stories tell us who we are, where we come from, and what is going to happen to us. No matter what our culture, proverbs and stories “occupy” us, to use Wayne Booth’s (1988) term, and they have the capacity to transform our world-views and assist us in becoming better and wiser human beings.

References for this blog.

Basso, Keith. (1996). Wisdom sits in places: Landscape and language among the western Apache. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Booth, Wayne. (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.

Holliday, Stephen G. & Chandler, Michael J. (1986). Wisdom: Explorations in adult competence. (Vol. 17 in Contributions to Human Development. J. A. Meacham, Ed.).  New York: Karger.

Mosha, R. Sambuli. (2000). The heartbeat of indigenous Africa: A study of Chagga educational system. New York: Falmer Press.

Peristiany, J. G. (1992). The Sophron—a secular saint? Wisdom and the wise in a Cypriot community. In J. G. Peristiany & Julian Pitt-Rivers (eds.), Honor and grace in Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Perry, T. A. (1993). Wisdom literature and the structure of proverbs. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

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