Back in my early 20s, I was given a piece of advice, and told that it works in every situation that humans face. I initially couldn’t (or rather, wouldn’t!) accept the idea that it could apply in every context. And I tried really hard to imagine a situation in which it wouldn’t work… but even now, a couple of decades later, I still haven’t found a situation that it doesn’t apply to. That alone is enough to make me value it.
But even more than that, it is a piece of advice that has helped me over and over again as I have navigated change, endured challenges, faced failures, and celebrated successes. Its applicability and its usefulness have elevated it in my eyes from advice to wisdom. And now I’m sharing it with you so that you’ve got it in your back pocket next time you need a nudge in the right direction.
Advice is not always wise
Most well-meaning people, myself included, are tempted to offer advice to others when we see that they are struggling. But advice isn’t always helpful – sometimes it’s nothing more than a myth long past its use-by date, at other times it’s one person trying to force their perspective or values on the other. And advice usually focuses on symptoms rather than the root cause, encouraging us to think in short-term (and self-centred) ways.
By contrast, wisdom guides us to live in accordance with our highest human values and guides us towards the greater good, for ourselves and the people around us, and helps us consider the future. The piece of advice ticks all these boxes for me. Are you ready for it?
The best and wisest piece of advice
Four words. I think that’s part of the reason I initially resisted accepting it. It seemed way too simple. How could four words help me no matter what situation I was in? Surely it has to be more complicated than that? But it isn’t.
What are the four words? “This too shall pass”.
The origin of the advice
This advice originated in Persia, also surfacing in the Jewish wisdom tradition, and popularised by Abraham Lincoln before he became President of the US.
The story varies, but the essential thread is that a ruler asked his sages to present him with a phrase to help him understand the nature of the human experience and/or would be applicable to all human experiences. They eventually came to him with “This too shall pass”.
One of the retellings captures the versatility of this piece of advice: the ruler wanted something that would cheer him when he was sad. While it certainly helped him when he was down, reminding him that a better day would come, it also became like a curse when he was happy, because he knew it wouldn’t last.
And that, for me, is why this advice is so powerful – it reminds us that being human is about experiencing constant change.
My experience with this advice
Change is the only constant
As Heraclitus is thought to have said “Change is the only constant”. This advice reminds me that nothing about being human is permanent, no matter how hard we try to keep things the same.
For one thing, we are constantly changing at a cellular level, even while we sleep! We are physically a different person to the person we were just yesterday.
And every waking moment, every experience we have – every conversation, thought, decision, word, action – changes us, as individuals and communities, in small and large ways. That encourages me when I’m down, and humbles me when I’m up.
Encouragement when I'm down
I am a huge fan of personal development and growth – I have dedicated a great deal of time, energy and money in pursuing self-development, self-awareness, and self-actualisation. As a result, I’m pretty familiar with change – I don’t always love it in the moment, but I do love the results.
What I really don’t love is feeling stuck! You could call that one of my “unbearable feelings”. I’ll do anything to avoid feeling it, and when I can’t avoid it, I grump/complain/huff until I get myself unstuck. Eventually I recall the advice – this too shall pass – and while it doesn’t fix my stuckness, it helps me reframe my situation.
It reminds me that the reason I dislike feeling stuck is because it always feels like it’s going to be permanent. It feels like nothing I do will change things (even though I have ample contrasting evidence from past experience).
Reminding myself “This too shall pass” reminds me that someday I’ll be looking back on the experience I’m having right now. I’ll be unstuck and in a better place physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Knowing that stops me falling into a pattern of self-centred victim-thinking. It encourages me to think how I can connect with, support and encourage others facing their own challenges, and celebrating with those enjoying stunning success. One of my values is to meet people where they are at, so keeping this advice in mind helps me live in alignment with that value.
Humility when I'm up
And once I’m in that better place, the advice keeps my feet on the ground. It feels incredible to achieve your goals, conquer your personal Everest, and live your dream. I love that feeling; it’s one of my key motivators when I’m striving towards my goals.
The impermanence of these “mountain-top” experiences used to scare me. But I’ve learned that “this too shall pass” works for mountain-tops and valleys. That helps me to savour the deliciousness of the moment and to make the most of it while it’s with me, because I know the only way to the next mountaintop is to go back into the valley.
The advice also reminds me that much of my experience doesn’t depend on me. Like everyone, my life is heavily influenced by things outside my control – where and when I was born, my skin colour, the education I’ve had, the economy and national culture I inhabit… change any of these factors, and my life experience could be drastically different.
Knowing that helps me stay humble. I’ve generally made the most of my circumstances, but I also recognise how luck has influenced the circumstances I’ve faced. This helps me feel compassion for others who are facing tough situations, and look for ways that I can use my lucky circumstances to positively influence their opportunities and experience.
Where can you apply this advice?
Are you relaxing on the mountain-top, or slogging your way through a valley? Maybe you’re just starting your climb or descent?
How can you apply this advice to your life today? What great things can you savour while they are with you? What encouragement can you draw on to help you through the mire?
Who will you share this advice with?
Sharing wisdom is a great way to connect with and support others.
And while this advice works for every situation, think carefully about who you’ll share it with and when. If you share it with someone who has just had an amazing win, you risk deflating their sense of accomplishment and being the reason their mountain-top experience has passed – that’s not going to be helpful!
Instead, think about people you know who are facing challenges. Could they do with a reminder that one day, their challenges will be in their rear-view mirror? And maybe some encouragement to believe that they will have better days in the future? Share this post with them, or drop them a note or give them a call to reassure them that “this too shall pass”.