An Exercise in Mental Fitness

If we are going to elevate public discourse and debate, we'll need to stay mentally fit by exercising innate critical faculties. How else are we going to improve our intellectual jujitsu skills, which are desperately needed in this day of doublespeak?

For this exercise -- let's call it the fortune cookie game -- it would be helpful if you had a copy of James Geary's excellent new book, The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism. The object of our game is simple. Create aphorisms, or fortune cookie messages -- either one of your own (not easy) or by adding a twist to an old aphorism.

What's an aphorism (pronounced a-four-ism)? An aphorism delivers ''the short sharp shock of an old forgotten truth,'' Geary writes. ''They keep your mind in shape by making you wonder every morning whether you're simply walking to work or digging your own grave. Aphorisms are spurs to action.''

All the great sages have used aphorisms as a teaching device -- from Jesus and the Buddha to Wittgenstein and Ambrose Bierce. The aphorism is the shortest and perhaps oldest form of wisdom teaching (as in, brevity is the mother of wit), whose purpose is not to make you feel all warm and fuzzy but to challenge and cajole, expanding our minds and spirits.

''What makes an aphorism different from other types of sayings, such as adages, mottoes, parables, platitudes, sound-bites, slogans, quips or quotations?'' Geary lays down the Five Laws of Aphorisms. It must be brief; definitive; personal (i.e., bear the stamp of a unique mind); philosophical; and have a twist.

What follows are a handful of my favorites and a few that I either created or adapted.

  • Remember the difference between truth and fact, and never forget that all effective lies are full of facts.
  • Perform individual acts of charity and you're a good Christian. Inquire about why there's a need for charity in the first place, and you're a good communist.
  • A good run is better than a bad stand (from my grandfather, who unfortunately was not invited to the gathering of diplomats meeting to discuss the Iraq war with President ''Stay the Course").
  • Maybe someone could show our ''Bible-believing'' president the portion of scripture where Joseph ran from temptation instead of trying to fool himself into thinking he was man enough to face any challenge).
  • Language is the dress of thought, and there are no clothes big enough to fit the absolute truth.
  • The most effective way to create an ever-growing number of victims is to further dehumanize convicts in prison, the majority of whom will eventually be released to an unsuspecting public.
  • If you free your mind, your behind will follow (Dr. Bobby Wright).
  • Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that all stupid people are conservative (J.S. Mill).
  • Those who are enamored with military might are ignorant of the weakness of power, and those who ridicule nonviolence fail to see the power of weakness.
  • Objectivity is illusion. But honesty is enough.
  • Some side with the superpower; others with the enemy.
  • And when elephants wrestle, only the grass is injured.
  • An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind (the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.)
  • Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel (Dr. Samuel Johnson).
  • Patriotism is the first refuge of the scoundrel (Ambrose Bierce).
  • Christianity is a good idea. Someone ought to try it sometime (a variation on Gandhi's observation about Western civilization).
  • Love thy enemy (Jesus).
  • Be selfish. Be kind to others (the Dalai Lama).
  • Be a child of God. He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Jesus).
  • The Kingdom of God is within you (Jesus).

OK, then. In the aphoristic words of Holbrook Jackson, don't think. Do! Make your own fortune-cookie sayings and e-mail them to me. If I get enough good ones, I'll publish them in this column.

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