‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.’
Lord Alfred Tennyson, In Memorium A.H.H
If sentimentality was measured in weight, there wouldn’t exist scales large enough to gauge Lord Alfred Tennyson’s famous little adage. As with most of those literary excerpts handpicked to become ‘inspirational quotes’, Lord Alfred’s couplet from In Memorium is effortlessly pithy, charming and soothing. To me though, as a supposed source of inspiration, it’s infuriatingly flawed. Really, it’s just crap. I wish it were possible for me to say ‘screw you’ to the laws of quantum mechanics, travel back in time to 1850s London and deliver a precision karate-chop to the back of Tennyson’s bearded neck as he lowered his quill to the the page. Nothing against old Fred, but I’m sure he’d forgive my extreme measures if he knew how carelessly his words are tossed around today.
‘Better to have loved and lost’? Really? Let’s put it into practice then. Imagine you are handed the best ever chocolate-mint gelato cone the world would ever see. I mean, the best. Ever. One lick of this singularly perfect frozen dessert sweeps you off to a euphoric realm of sugar and dancing pixies. It is without question, the greatest thing you’ve ever tasted. You are so engrossed that around you the world slows to a blur and a hum. But, suddenly , a lose paver meets your foot and the sudden jolt bursts your scene back to reality and you watch, powerlessly, as that delicious icy scoop of your hopes and dreams escapes your grips and plummets down to the earth, splattering over an ant’s nest which has a dog turd on it. You stare at the scene in disbelief, completely shattered. Now, apologies for introducing such a morbid thought and I pray this never happens to you, but let me assure you, it hurts. It hurts like a bastard. One second life is but a weightless ascension to choc-minty nirvana and the next, it’s a sickening thud into the dirty ground of broken dreams.
Now, if you had never been handed this gelato, you’d have been as happy and content as before ‘The Incident’. You will have been blissfully oblivious to the agony of being robbed of what instantly became your definition of perfection. You’d suffer no lamentation, no desperate low – because there was no giddy high. The splattered green remains of the gelato covered in ants and dog poo is a much harder sight to bear when you know just how delicious and joyous it was. Without that knowledge, it would be little more than a typical spilled dairy product, which we all know is nothing to cry about.
Am I belittling the deeper wisdom of the phrase with a hypothetical smashed ice cream? Maybe. Well yes. But is lingering heartache and terminally-unrequited yearning a fair admission price to experience the dizzying thrill and passion of love but for only a brief, momentary spell. I genuinely don’t believe it is. No other thought can grip even the sturdiest mind and violently shake it into fragility than that of rumination – the dreaded ‘what if’ –in love or any other avenue of existence. It is of course just another human truth; about consequence, lessons, growth and Scrubs-style inner-monologues. But there’s no point trying to suture a wound with flimsy musings. The contradiction in what many interpret from Tennyson’s words only feeds the helpless, grasping feelings of frustration and injustice. It doesn’t make anything better. It only makes you want to time travel and karate chop history’s greatest wordsmiths.
Then again, perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. I mean – the choc mint may be gone, but consider that in your state of despair you forget that clasped your other hand is a big scoop of vanilla caramel, melting away, unseen and untasted…
Putting my cynicism and sarcasm aside, I truly do love a great inspirational quote as much as I love the combination of chocolate and mint in gelato-form. Great thinkers and writers are trusted teachers to me. I don’t need to have ever met them , but every word they’ve penned or uttered shines with the immeasurable value of their reputation and their proven wisdom. There’s a reason why great philosophers, writers and leaders command such influence over people, even well beyond their deaths. Their mastery of words and their insight into the human experience is timeless. One of my personal favourite phrases is: “The energy of the mind is the essence of life,” said by the brilliant Greek philosopher Aristotle well over two millennia ago. Immortalising those words into life-affirming proverb is the fact they are direct from the mind of Aristotle: the man who studied under Plato, who studied under Socrates – a product of three formidable intellects and equally formidable beards.
However, with Tumblr and Facebook and Pintrest and the like, the realm of inspirational quotations has been hijacked by melodramatic teenagers with Instagram and first-world problems. Search ‘inspirational quote’ on Google Images and you’ll see nothing but self-help drivel scrawled over silhouettes and fake lens flare. Worse yet, you’ll encounter a famous historical quote, but it will be superimposed on a picture of a barefoot woman in a billowy dress standing on black and white train tracks. And spelled incorrectly. And credited to Justin Bieber.
Intelligence and wit that is applied with kind intentions, completely free of arrogance is one of the best qualities you can find in a human being. Little else is as admirable as an altruistic desire to teach, and to learn so as to teach. The only way we can learn today from the greatest teachers who ever lived is to read and understand the words they left behind, especially those that that escape the pages of tomes and stand out on their own accord, throughout ages. Unfortunately though, the idea of these succinct, inspirational quotes is now the domain of tumblr-keeping teens whose biggest crisis in life was that harrowing time their BFF didn’t reply to a text for like, two whole hours. The important thoughts and works from the likes of Goethe, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Wilde, Nietzsche, Twain and so many others have been sucked into this world that spins on an axis of melodrama and lack of self-awareness. I wince at the thought that thanks to this online phenomenon, out there somewhere, someone has interpreted the wise words of Socrates – ‘Know thyself’ to mean ‘I like holes in my stockings becoz my style is like, soooooooooo individual.’ How cruelly ironic.
So why does ‘better to have loved and lost’ really infuriate me? It’s not Tennyson who deserves a karate chop, not at all. It’s those who repeat the phrase without understanding its true meaning (it was a lengthy meditation on mortality and hope following the death of a dear friend) and in doing so, push it closer towards superficiality, robbing the author of the respect it deserves. Thankfully, even the weighty tribulations of teenage life cannot weaken the poignancy of timeless wisdom. I’m frustrated because it’s disappointing to see great historical works misunderstood because so few in this online generation pause for reflection. These words are not meant to be ‘catchy’. They’re not meant to be photoshopped onto an overexposed picture of a tyre-swing, nor scrawled on a post-it note. They should exist only in your mind and heart, an arm’s length away for when that time comes when you really do need a little comfort or inspiration in your lives, wherever you are. If, as Aristotle said, the essence of life is an energetic mind, then feed it with the wisdom of others and invigorating ideas, think about the words, know them – don’t waste them in a rush to post up on your Facebook wall.
Here are some ‘inspirational quotes’ I collected in a quick Google Image sweep. I learned a couple of things. One, lame metaphors and whimsical (and completely irrelevant) photos are a match made in heaven; and two, some people really should have kept to their day jobs and left the aphorisms to the pros.