Voltaire made many memorable and valuable statements on life in a tumultuous period of human history. Today I would like to share two of my favorites. The first, sage counsel for anyone who finds themselves in a rut, is this: “Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.” What excellent advice! While it is perhaps one of those concepts that is easier to grasp on fair weather days than while under pressure, it is invariably true.
If you inadvertently brushed up against a thorny bush while walking on a path in the woods – whether you put the bush there or not – you would probably move swiftly to extract yourself from the bush and move on. You think that people would do the same with the emotional and mental thorns encountered in the path of life, but do they? In my observation the greater tendency is to wrestle with the bush, roll around in it, jump in it, jump on it, walk away and leap back onto it just when it looked like they were clear of it…anything but get away from it! It just doesn’t make any sense.
Which brings me to my second favorite quote from Voltaire: “Common sense is not so common.” Why not? There is plenty of instruction on the foundational elements of common sense. Almost anyone has the power to understand its tenets. In fact, the wonderful thing about common sense is that it is so easy to recognize and it is universally true.
Let’s reflect for a moment on several arch-enemies of common sense:
- Prejudice of any type. The tendency to pre-judge a situation, to arrive at a conclusion before the event occurs often precludes common sense. Many a simple situation requiring the application of common sense is rendered intractably complex by virtue of prejudice.
- A failure to maintain objectivity and openness to other perspectives. Thomas Jefferson once said: “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” Common sense is often ignored, perhaps in the knowledge that it can make a wrong or incomplete but dearly held approach look foolish.
- Over-complication of everything. One of the by-products of the tendency toward specialization in virtually every field of human endeavor is that nothing appears to be simple anymore. What used to be simple decisions now seem to be more difficult due to information overload. Look too closely at a problem or a limitation and you will lose your ability to balance the details against the big picture. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, it is likely that your decisions will be based not on common sense but on a myopic understanding of the factors.
William Somerset Maugham once remarked: “Common sense and good nature will do a lot to make the pilgrimage of life not too difficult.” I agree wholeheartedly, do you?