Wisdom from G K Chesterton

22 Dec

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.


One thought on “Wisdom from G K Chesterton

  1. A timely word there, Frank, especially for those crippled by the burdens of perfectionism and the painful longing for acceptance that can fuel it. So, thank you. Those great reliefs you describe can be a long time coming. I guess that’s what make them so.

    Your quip from Küng reminds me, in fact, of Chesterton’s statement, in his ‘The Everlasting Man’, that ‘A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it’. And while we’re thinking Chesterton and Christmas, there is, of course, his delicious poem ‘The House of Christmas’. It has some of my favourite lines:

    Only where He was homeless
    Are you and I at home …
    This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
    And strange the plain things are,
    The earth is enough and the air is enough
    For our wonder and our war;
    But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
    And our peace is put in impossible things
    Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
    Round an incredible star.

    Pax christi, Jason

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