Margaret Mead says

quote mead

I began the systematic collection of quotations some years ago, and I pursue my hobby with the same fervor that is often found in serious collectors of coins, stamps, butterflies, and other objects of fascination.


I’m always on the lookout for new “finds,” and I feel a definite thrill when I come across a great new specimen I have never seen before. Like all serious collectors, I have also tried to organize my enormous collection of quotations into a number of more manageable categories.

In my case, I put them into computer files with labels like chiasmus, retorts, puns, insults, paradox, lost positives, modified maxims, and ifferisms. For more than ten years, I have also had a file for quotations that begin with the word never.

Some of history’s best-known quotations have been expressed, and one very special admonition has long been a personal favorite: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Margaret Mead

This is the most famous quotation from one of history’s most famous women. The saying is so intimately associated with Mead-and so often cited by people who don’t exactly subscribe to her core beliefs-that it has been registered to protect its use. The trademark is currently held by Mead’s granddaughter, Sevanne Kassarjian, who has graciously given her permission to include it here. The Institute for Intercultural Studies, which Mead founded in 1944, prominently features the saying on its website. An original citation for the saying has never been found, but the Institute does provide this statement on its origin:

We believe it probably came into circulation through a newspaper report of something said spontaneously and informally. We know, however, that it was firmly rooted in her professional work and that it reflected a conviction that she expressed often, in different contexts and phrasings.

While many erisms have helped shape my philosophy of life, one in particular helped me fundamentally reshape a longstanding, but not particularly effective, habit: Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was not reasoned into him, and cannot be reasoned out.

Sydney Smith

I originally found this observation in Tryon Edward’s A Dictionary of Thoughts (1891), the oldest quotation anthology in my collection of over 300 such books. Smith was an Anglican clergyman and a popular London writer in the early 1800s. In the mid-1970s, when I first came across the quotation, I was a young idealist with a reputation for spending countless hours attempting to reason with people who held what I regarded as unfounded or irrational beliefs. Smith’s admonition was like a reminder from Dr. Phil, gently tapping me on the shoulder and asking, “So how’s that working for you?”

In my early adulthood, I was a great reader of fiction, and a large number of the quotations in my everisms collection came from fictional characters. Many of them almost jumped off the pages at me as I was reading some well-known novels: Never abandon hope.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, from the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Never completely encircle your enemy.

Leave him some escape, for he will fight even more desperately if trapped.

Alex Haley, advice from the kintango, in Roots (1977)

Never pass up new experiences, Scarlett. They enrich the mind.

Margaret Mitchell, from Rhett Butler, in Gone with the Wind (1936)

Never think you’ve seen the last of anything.

Eudora Welty, from Judge McKelva in The Optimist’s Daughter (1972)

In my favorite fictional everism, though, Mario Puzo writes in The Godfather (1969):

“Never get angry,” the Don had instructed.

“Never make a threat. Reason with people.”

This is a wonderful passage, ironically capturing the reasoning ability of Don Corleone, and rivaling his even-more-famous line about making someone an offer he couldn’t refuse. For reasons I will never understand, the passage never made it into the 1972 film adapted from the novel (even though the screenplay was written by Puzo). The two everisms in the book are so perfectly suited for Marlon Brando that, had he actually delivered them in the film, they almost certainly would have become classics.

In several wonderful examples of serendipity, some everisms have appeared in my life exactly when I needed them. When I was a graduate student, I was struck by how readily my fellow students became adherents of a particular school of psychological thought. Of course, the students were simply following the lead of so many professors, who seemed more than willing to proclaim themselves Freudians, Jungians, Rogerians, Skinnerians, or disciples of some other approach. At the time, such a choice seemed ill-advised and shortsighted, but I sometimes found myself wondering if I might be the one who was making a mistake.

Late in my graduate school career, I was reading Neill! Neill! Orange Peel!, the 1972 autobiography of A. S. Neill, the legendary Scottish educator who founded the progressive English school Summerhill (the title of Neill’s book, by the way, came from a rhyming nickname that he had been given by his students). In the book, I found some reassuring words:

My motto has always been: Take from others what you want, but never be a disciple of anyone.

In 1979, Norman Cousins, the longtime Saturday Review editor and legendary peace activist, was in the news once again, this time for Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient (1979), a dramatic story about how he overcame a painful and potentially life-threatening form of arthritis. After learning that one of his physicians had said, “I’m afraid we’re going to lose Norman,” Cousins figured he had nothing to lose and took control over his own treatment. He began watching Marx Brothers movies and Candid Camera videos every day, discovering that “ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect that would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” He slowly began to improve-greatly surprising his doctors-and began to view laughter as sedentary aerobic exercise. He also began to view the mind as an essential factor in a patient’s recovery. Ten years after his first book, he further explored the topic in Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit (1989).

When Cousins was writing these books, I confess that I was only moderately familiar with his story. But in 1995, I began to learn as much as I could during that period, and one night was delighted to discover yet another everism for my ever-growing collection:

Never deny a diagnosis, but do deny the negative verdict that may go with it.




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