I always assumed the phrase cited above was something from the Bible, as my very wise mother was fond of quoting to stress a point rather than going into long explanations. Yet after an Internet search for its source, I could only find references to a legendary Japanese swordsman and to Steven Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Both links were excellent for their particular situations, but it didn’t really satisfy the meaning Mom wanted to impart.
As it turns out, demonstrating examples and lessons was a talent she learned from her own father, and as time passes I realize that her succinct method of using aphorisms was a smart strategy.
Let’s face it, teenagers hate to be lectured to, and in fact I know of no one who does. Participating in discussions – well, that’s a different matter. Mother could talk a blue-streak on almost any topic under the sun, but she was also a master of what she called, ‘verbal shorthand,’ or to quote another aphorism, ‘One picture is worth a thousand words.’ Because of its impact, I recall the discussion in vivid detail.
“That’s stupid,” my teenage self shot back. “they should do it before the battle.” She just smiled, and I’m certain she realized that I considered everything she did or said to be stupid or embarrassing. “You need a sharp sword to fight, so it should be done beforehand.” I added with the kind of annoyance sixteen-year-old girl seem to possess in abundance.
“Very true,” she agreed. “But how do you know who your enemy is or when they will strike again?”
I couldn’t understand where the conversation was headed because it began in response to chatting on the telephone about winning a writing competition. In the days before cell phones and Ma Bell Princess extensions, most people had only one phone in the middle of the house. Ours was in the kitchen / dining area, a place where I could usually find Mom reading or cooking. It was really hard to have private conversations without hiding in a closet, and besides, there was no closet in our kitchen.
“I wasn’t listening to your conversation, but I couldn’t help but hear you say to your friend that you had won first place.” She asked cagily.
“I didn’t think I was boasting, but maybe it did sound that way,” I replied, hedging my answer. She smiled, and I was afraid she was going to drag out her “Pride goeth before a fall” pitch. But she surprised me.
“Darling,” she began, and I then I knew that I wasn’t in trouble, “sometimes after you do something wonderful, people can become very jealous.” I sat down and joined her at the table as she continued. “They are very happy for you, but at the same time, they wish it was them doing the celebrating.”
I thought for a moment, “She was kind of quiet when I told her, but I was just so happy and I wanted to share the news with my best friend.”
“I know, dear, but sometimes it’s better to have a few successes before you tell people things. Envy can cause people to remarks that wither your joy and stop you from succeeding.” The puzzled look on my face made her continue, “They don’t do it on purpose, of course. But just like with a plant, you have to nurture those tender little sprouts until they’re strong enough to make it on their own.”
That sounded rather ominous to me at the time, but because mother did have eyes in the back of her head, I was sure she had reason to believe what she was saying was true. Still, I had been talking to my best friend. How could she wish me any ill will?
If I initially thought I was going to get away without some Biblical euphemism, I was wrong. “Mary pondered it, and kept it in her heart,” mother explained, “because she needed to protect the Promise.”
I recalled how a neighbor had just announced that she was expecting, but the due date was only five months away. “We wanted to keep it a secret until we were sure everything was O.K.” she had told us, barely masking her excitement.
I was just learning about the birds and the bees, and I didn’t realize that having a baby wasn’t a ‘slam-dunk’ thing. “You mean like Suzanne not saying anything when she first found out about the baby?” I was starting to understand.
It’s been over fifty years since that conversation, but I have come to see the truth in her admonition. It is often best to have a few successes under our belt so that our confidence is firmly anchored or ‘protected.’ Mom was my biggest supporter, but I realize now that in this instance she was speaking from experience. There had been people who had come between her and her own ‘bliss.’ What she didn’t recognize was that people can also project their own fears onto others – even onto people they love.
When we celebrate a victory, we should remember that nothing is a guarantee–not the next touchdown, the next novel or the next business deal. A stray comment may delay our success – even for decades. It may erode our confidence and diminish our purpose.
But as long as we remain prepared for action, weigh the validity of thoughts that may come to us either internally or from others, we will be ready to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.
And when the battle finally comes-and it will-we will be ready.
“When the battle drum beats, it is too late to sharpen your sword.”