Northern Advocate Column

Proverbs in times of crisis

I like a good proverb. I enjoy scouring the wisdom of the past for some insight that speaks to me. So I was intrigued by an exhibition at the Geoff Wilson Gallery in Whangārei that paired artist’s creations with proverbs from different cultures.

The artworks were interesting, but being a wordy-type, it was the proverbs (or whakataukī) that held my attention. I couldn’t help but read them in light of coronavirus. It’s in trying times that proverbs—essentially short meaningful sayings—can offer some comfort or perspective on the situation. They might also impart a warning.

I’ve selected five proverbs here and give my interpretations in the context of the life-changing and era-defining events unfolding.  

“There’s no iron so hard that rust won’t fret it, and there’s no cloth so fine that moths won’t eat it.” – Scottish Proverb

The global economy, mind-blowing in scale and complexity, can be devastated by a microorganism. We should never forget nature’s ability to bring down what we build-up, and that time can bring the end to all things. So maybe we shouldn’t be too confident to believe that what we achieve or construct will last. Like many proverbs this one is a warning against hubris. 

“The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man perfected without trials.” – Chinese Proverb 

The threats to health and income will test many people over the coming months. This Chinese proverb offers the hope that from adversity we might grow and improve. Individuals will rise to the challenge, within families, in the health system, within government. Our institutions, particularly those meant to ensure the well-being of all, maybe strengthened and improved. A positive for when we face future crises. 

“Corners of a house can be seen, but corners of the heart cannot be seen. He kokonga whare, e kitea, he kokonga ngakau, e kore e kitea.” Hauraki Proverb

We can never know exactly what’s going on inside another person. This proverb should remind us to cut people some slack if they’re moody or offend us in some way. There might be something worrying them that we don’t know about. Good advice always, but pertinent now. It can also be read as a warning. People’s motivations aren’t always clear. They could have selfish motives behind appearances, or a hidden agenda. In response to Covid-19 and the economic fallout, there will be a rising pitch of voices. That’s to be expected. There will be agendas—honest and upfront ones—but also ones that are concealed. Is that politician, social media influencer, investment advisor, or business leader really motivated by a wider concern, or is there self-interest involved? 

“Because my house has become soiled, let the smoking ashes be cleansed by the four winds of heaven. Waiho mā ngā hau e whā hei whakaatea ai te poa i taku whare.”Hauraki Proverb

This one punches heavy, influenced perhaps by that book of heavy punches, the Bible. Something has become so soiled, rotten-through, that the best action is to reduce it to ashes. Those four winds of heaven, however, offer the possibility of cleansing. The past can be blown away, and we can start over. There’s maybe a nod to the four horsemen of the apocalypse here. Or I’d like to think, the winds that come from four directions, North, South, East, and West. The world will not be the same after coronavirus. The unpredictable winds of change are going to buffet governments, corporations, banks, and the economic orthodoxies that have prevailed in recent years. Some good may come of it. 

“On looking back, the land was covered white with ghosts. I te huringa kō muri, e haramā te whenua i te kēhua.” – Maori Proverb

As we move forward, doing what we have to do, we should pause at times to reflect on the loss of wisdom and experience being felt by communities and families around the world. 

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