Proverbs, often referred to as ‘deep language’, are a ready mark of traditional societies. And their absence from everyday discourse marks a shift away from ‘wisdom’ toward a knowledge, or information culture.
I once heard a hacker say that creeping into a guarded digital domain is like breaking into a gothic cathedral; finding architecture replete with gargoyles, rose windows, soaring arches and alcoves. Even the simplest of traditional proverbs can present in the same way. ‘Breaking into a proverb’ can require deft maneuvering, sometimes needing the assistance of insiders. What makes their architecture fascinating is ambiguity of meaning, their word play and vivid imagery. And like soaring archways, proverbs point beyond everyday images or circumstance to a truth required for living – even survival.
Consider the following proverb on leadership:
“Where a leader hobbles, the people crawl on their bellies.”
(Southern Africa – Tswana)
Some facets of meaning:
– People share the qualities/weaknesses of their leaders.
– People are prone to mirroring (in excess) what they see in their leaders.
– People suffer the painful consequences of the brokenness of their leaders.
– People may seek to protect the dignity of a handicapped leader by abasing themselves.
– When afflicted with a failed leader, the people are held in contempt by others.
And, a proverb from East Asia about a quality prized in preeminent leaders:
“The heaviest head of rice bends most deeply.” (Japan)