I've been noticing this trend since about March, and furtively taking pictures, wondering what to make of our tendency to decorate walls, pillows, mailboxes, and mugs with words.
Such maxims have a long and varied cultural history. We have Aesop's fables with their tightly-expressed advice. Proust's beloved grandmother reads Madame de Sevigny. Gandhi advised us to "Be the change you want to see in the world," advice I try to make one of my principles. It is unarguable: something we all need to do. At the same time, does it ask us to do something we may inherently be too lazy to do: think about what needs changing and about how our behaviour might change that? We also have to believe that our tiny gestures matter. So we don't argue with it, but I also don't know how much these words govern the way we live. I need only type in "Do unto others...." and you know exactly what I'm talking about. Or do you? Has the maxim become the cliche, which poet Robert Hall once described as "the cinder block of language": something functional that you don't really think about?
Some of these seem to be stands-ins for family crests: a statement of who we are. If you have a cottage and also own a pillow that says "I love the lake," isn't that a bit redundant? If you don't own a cottage and have the same pillow, it's an expression of nostalgia or desire. But is a pillow the right place for it?
"Paris is always a good idea" might identify you as one of the adventurers-in-the-know, except that the piles of mugs suggests that clearly there are quite a number of you out there. "All you need is warm socks" is certainly heartwarming and quirky--knitters would doubtless agree--but warm socks are pointlessly comforting on a hot day when you have lost the love of your life.
Other examples, like the "Happiness Pennants" seem to be advice. Once upon a time, I liked the phrase "It is what it is," because it seemed to express a kind of Buddhist acceptance. Then I began hearing it too often and realized that it also expressed a demand: "It is what it is! Deal!" Or it advocated apathy or helplessness. I soon realized that I had my own version was "Whatever it is, I can probably work with it."
I should probably delighted that we are adorning our walls and sofas with words, but I'm not. These all seem too easy, unearned. I have a sense that we give them lip service and then go on with our lives.
"Am I a snob?" as Woolf once famously asked? Am I drawing a false distinction between a popular trend and my own mantras, some of which might be suitable for pillow or plank? "Just be curious" is rule number one for me. It speaks of a way of orienting myself to the world and to the people in it. It's a reminder to be curious before I get judgmental or resort to stereotypes or other methods of avoiding hard thought. I suppose my second, if I had to put it briefly, would be "Talk. Listen. Listen. Talk." But that doesn't quite capture the way I think that conversation and dialogue are at the centre of everything from our most intimate relationships and to the more successful civic discourse that helps us negotiate the challenges of living in communities that seek to be fair and inventive. It also doesn't quite capture the fact that I believe having a voice that is respected and heard is one of our most primal needs--right after love.
"Whenever possible, say something kind. Give praise where it's earned" might be my third. Apparently there are parts of my brain that give me a hit of dopamine every time I do this, but I simply feel that being human is hard work and people deserve to be told when they've done a particularly good job of it. "Be where you are" is probably my fourth, but it is meant to be evoked in those moments when you are with someone else, but aren't quite focused, attentive, or patient, as well as in those moments when you are out walking on a lovely spring evening, but are texting madly away. It's my old fart's objection to the fact that too much of the time we're where our technology has taken us, not where we actually are. In my old fogey's way, I'm worried about what is going to happen to our sense of community, our daily treatment of others, our environmental goals--not to mention our driving--if we're not actually where we are. If I'm in my device and not out for a walk, what's the point of saving the planet? It's this maxim of mine that makes me suspect that our little phrases come as much out of the things that bug us as much as out of our own wisdom.
I think four of these is about all I can manage. (Please let me know if I've left out something earth-shattering.) And each of them is associated with a particular recognition or "aha!" moment that I can still recall, and then a period of reflection. Only later did the principle get whittled down to maxim length for easy recall. "Hmmm. I know I got a principle for this kind of situation....Right. Just be curious."
Dare I say, at the risk of being called a snob, that what these mugs and boxed canvases do is to allow us to feel that we're on the right track--of course, we must be: somebody's marketing it!--without thinking about what that track really involves. (Yes, Katherine, it's' all system one thinking.) You want words: pick up a book that puzzles you. You want a graphic image on your wall? How about a painting that you return to again and again, fascinated, without completely understanding it. In spite of my own mantras, I think it's puzzles we want and need, not certainties. Unless you're talking about flossing and flushing.