The clever one-liner is an art form we can all admire, but Chesterton excelled not only with wit but also wisdom.
A lot of people are quoting one of his best, just now—and it is really needed amidst the Christmas rush:
‘There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.’
That’s worth a lot of thinking about. What exactly is it we desire, when we think we want ‘enough’? There is wisdom and challenge in this simple statement, and adding more words to it are simply unnecessary. The statement is enough.
Many years ago I benefited greatly from another of Chesterton’s one-liners:
‘If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’
This statement challenges the ethic in which I was raised, with a focus on excellence. The basic idea was that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well. But it’s effect was often quite different. For many of us it became, ‘Unless you can do something well (meaning to perfection), don’t even try.’ The tyranny of excellence meant that people who are not gifted in certain areas shy away from them completely. If they love singing but don’t have a ‘good voice’, they don’t sing, and so on for art and sport, and so on.
What a great relief it was for me as a young man to accept that I could enjoy things whether or not I could do them well.
I have always been attracted to the radical edge of politics and community life, while the institutions of society seem always trying to ‘tone things down’. We are urged to conform, or to ‘work within the system’ and so on. There is some wisdom in that, but it’s not always right. I remember being struck by one specific word that Hans Küng uses to describe Jesus’ stance on many issues, in the book On Being a Christian—the word ‘combative’. This is no ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. To follow Jesus really calls us, quite often, to rattle the cage, to shake the system, and so to get into trouble. That might mean institutionally or socially. At that point another Chesterton quote is worth remembering too:
‘I like getting into hot water. It helps to keep one clean.’
Chesterton is basically saying that we can’t actually keep a good conscience and avoid getting off side with some people, perhaps especially those in power, whether it’s in political, social or religious institutional power. We need to get into hot water sometimes.
Chesterton lived from 1874 to 1936, in a very different world from ours, as his literary works show. But his insight into human nature and the ethical challenges of our lives continues to be spot on. These are clever and funny one-liners (and there are many more), but they are also wise and worthy of deep reflection over this holiday time.