Aristotle’s Always Hogging the Credit

So, I was having a shitty week several days ago — even if I no longer remember why.  Or maybe I didn’t even know at the time.

The fact was, everybody on earth was getting on my nerves.  I am now old enough and smart enough to realize that usually signals something is wrong with me (God, I do miss my salad days of rank immaturity when I could blame the rest of the callous, uncaring world for my bad moods.  Warm baths of self-pity and victimhood can be so satisfying).  (Along the same lines, I also have to say I miss the wonderful, all-purpose excuse of PMS.  When I was younger, I spent most of my time blaming it for everything.  After menopause, though, your only conclusion can be that you have a permanently bad personality.  Ouch.)

But anyway, I was having lunch that day with someone who was irritating me.  I listened to her and thought about how self-absorbed and insufferable she was.  In the midst of her complaints, I happened to recall a quote I’d just read about from Aristotle: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

So, I listened to her,and she slowly began to tell me how uneasy she was about the changes going on in her life, how easily upset she was.  Maybe, it occurred to me, she wasn’t really self-absorbed.  Maybe she was just troubled and trying to handle it.

Since I am only capable of thinking about one quote at a time, I hauled Aristotle along to a beauty appointment that afternoon.  This was with someone I have seen frequently over the years, but I can’t say we’re close friends.  She’s tough and outspoken and strong, I would have told you, someone who barges through life in a way I never could.

Oh, but I had Aristotle with me that day.  When she mentioned something painful in her past, I asked her about it.  She went on to tell me about the sexual trauma she suffered when she was in middle school and how no one believed her.  She talked on and on and, by the end, we both had tears in our eyes.

I left the salon and went home and started poking around the Internet (I call this work).  Somewhere — (Facebook?  Salon?  Daily Beast?  I don’t know.  When your mind is like velcro, you never know where you picked up something, only that it’s sticking to you and won’t let go) — but somewhere, I came across a complaint about how too many people had recently been marching around with some bogus quote by Aristotle.  You know, that fraudulent quote about being kind to people, since they’re all going through great battles.  Funny, the commenter noted, how people will believe anything.

So.  What do you know?

Today, I finally looked up the quote, and according to BrainyQuote, the quote is real, but Plato said it.  Plato, Aristotle, Mark Twain, the Reader’s Digest, Rush Fucking Limbaugh — I’m not sure I care about its origin.  I just like the quote.  For a few hours, it made me look at the world in a different way and helped me, briefly, to be a better person.  How can you focus on yourself when you look up and see all the great and valiant battles that are going on around you?

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my very favorite posts about the scourge of the punctuation universe

16 comments… add one
  • I like Anne Lamott’s version, which I’ll butcher: something about treating everyone like they’re patients in the emergency room. Not that I can do it all that often, since I feel like I’m in that emergency room for the same damn reason, but still.

  • Who cares who said it? I love it. And I know those shitty days/weeks for no reason all too well.

  • Steve Link

    It is a great quote. For two years, I’ve used that quote as the signature on my personal emails, attributed to Philo Judaeus, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher. Maybe he lifted it from Plato. Maybe you first read it at the end of my email!

    I had a friend call me Saturday wanting to know who Philo was; he was going to use the quote in a speech in which he was attempting to calm a minor political battle. As is my bent, I probably gave him too much information. I think “Hellenistic Jew” was too much for him. He probably attributed it Mack Brown.

  • I often tell myself to stop being grumpy with everyone and smile instead, and now I have a bit of learned philosophy to to tell myself along with the instruction to improve my mood. That’s good.

  • Great quote. I’m going to haul it out all this week when I’m on call. I’ve been dreading the days ahead but….you know? There are lots of personal battles going on out there that make my worries seem…well, dumb.

  • You are too funny. I’ve tried to live up to that quote a time or three. It does help to consider what others might have going on in their lives. And affords me the space to laugh at myself…

  • I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog, It is funny and interesting, and I like your writing style. I look forward to your book, congrats!

  • I love this quote, no matter who said it. It’s hard to remember to look beyond the surface with other people, yet I think we expect people to do it for us all the time. This a great lesson.

  • That is too funny. I like that quote, though (no matter who said it) because I do think it’s true. When I see people being spacey or rude in public, or if they are just walking around with a sour, sour face, I try to remember that they probably ARE going through something icky and just trying to get by.

    I know I am.

  • Hey, now you can tweak the quote, claim it as your own. Or, don’t tweak it and still claim it as your own. I also try to keep in mind that when someone’s cranky, maybe there’s just something going on I don’t know about. Then again, I’m having a grouchy mood day today and I would really like to blame it on someone other than me. Oh well.

  • Sheryl Link

    It IS a great quote; one that I am going to try to stick to me, too. Compassion is never a bad thing, after all. And I’m with you – I can no longer blame PMS for everything wrong in my life. Darn.

  • Good post, and thought provoking,

    Whenever I borrow a good quote about the ways of people and neither know nor care who said it, I always attribute it to Molly Goldberg.

  • “How can you focus on yourself when you look up and see all the great and valiant battles that are going on around you?”

    That’s another quote I like. I think Margaret Mead said it. Or was it Jane Austin?

  • Thank god for the internet and its constant flow of (mis)information. For velcro-brained girls like us, it’s a lifesaver.

  • Janet Link

    God, it was probably me you were having lunch with and who was being self-absorbed. Right? It really is always all about me, right?

  • gw Link

    Just read your Plato-inspired post in the Statesman this morning. Am so glad to discover you. Kudos to Statesman for publishing this and having the Unplugged section in Sunday’s paper.

    My daughter, an aspiring writer and observer of the Human Condition, is naturally a particular consumer of the Movie arts. She only recommends particular movies to her Mom and Dad, mindful of how us “geezers” process things.

    She recently pushed The Grizzley Man our way. Your post gave me a clear take on that movie. It was a documentary of “a great and valiant battle” by a seemingly self-absorbed person; a “tragic hero”, not for his ecologicism but for his “great and valiant battle”.

    Thanks for the insight.

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