Maybe it has always been this way, but why does it seem so vital to associate an insightful aphorism with a famous person?
“Truth strikes us from behind, and in the dark, as well as from before and in broad day-light.”
Who wrote this? Henry David Thoreau. Beautiful in its truth and simplicity. But what if some insignificant playwright put these words on Thoreau’s lips in his play? Would it be less insightful?
There is a plague of mis-quotations, mis-attributions, and quotation mills, (e.g. brainyquotes.com) who do nothing to verify what people add to their sites. I see these un-researched and inaccurate quotes used by people of incredible ability because the Internet makes it easy to be wrong and believe you are right.
When I first started seeing these “quotes.” and discovered how few were accurate, I spent months trying to raise the alarm about quotes attributed to Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and other notable historic figures. Even after blazing the trail to truth, people shrugged and continued their reliance on provably unreliable websites.
One personal experience, before the current craze, happened to me in Colorado, while I was on a month-long “Chautauqua” through the Rocky Mountains. A friendly lady gave me a bookmarker with a quotation from Henry David Thoreau. “Many men fish all their lives without ever realizing that it is not the fish they are after.” Very touching and insightful, but a misquote by a writer, Michael Baughman, who wrote it in his book A River Seen Right (Lyons Press, 1995) p. 156.
He apparently paraphrased something Thoreau wrote in his journal, January 26, 1853:
“It is remarkable that many men will go with eagerness to Walden Pond in the winter to fish for pickerel and yet not seem to care for the landscape. Of course, it cannot be merely for the pickerel they may catch; there is some adventure in it; but any love of nature which they may feel is certainly very slight and indefinite. They call it going a-fishing, and so indeed it is, though perchance, their natures know better. Now I go a-fishing and a-hunting every day, but omit the fish and the game, which are the least important part. I have learned to do without them. They were indispensable only as long as I was a boy. I am encouraged when I see a dozen villagers drawn to Walden Pond to spend a day in fishing through the ice, and suspect that I have more fellows than I knew, but I am disappointed and surprised to find that they lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on nothing else, as if there were nothing else to be caught.”
I wonder, if today, this aphorism captures our current, self-absorbed culture? Maybe today, the “fishing” is taking “selfies” and exposing every aspect of people’s experience and perspective on the Internet. They get noticed but not notorious, or famous, or even infamous. They become suicidal when virtual phantoms express disdain and scorn.
Everybody seems to be fishing for something, but what do they really want and why?
What they may really want is proof, and acknowledgment that they exist and have a value, and a meaning. Why do they want it? Maybe the disintegration of family, neighborhood, community leaves a void they cannot fill. Maybe this secular dissociation leaves people feeling empty, afraid, and alone.
Could it be that what they really want is what families and churches used to provide: love and belonging?