3 Ageless Proverbs for Self-Awakening

Curiosity killed the cat. That much is known. Lost are the details. Also unknown, to some, is the miracle of her resurrection.

A second coming might come as a surprise. For most children, the cat meets a definite and hairy end. The proverb is a ghost tale pedaled by parents to spook them from mischief.

The later half of the proverb, that “satisfaction brought it back,” gets erased from the telling. Curiosity kills the cat. Then mom buries it alive.

But there’s yet another version of the story. In the original, which dates back to the 16th century, the cat succumbs to misfortune, all the same, though at the hands of a different culprit. “Care”—that is, worry—”killed the cat.” (And it does not, by the way, manage to sneak back from that.)

Proverbs get used, misused, and modified this way: to pass morals from one generation to the next, from one person to the next, to forward along our personal and societal agendas.

Whether a half-truth gets passed, “Curiosity killed the cat;” or a fantastical one, “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back;” or an antiquated one, “Care killed the cat;” we often find ourselves shaped by the underlying wisdom.


During a trip to Burkina Faso last summer, I was reminded of the role proverbs play in communicating wisdom, complex and simple.

A friend there, witnessing my stilted gait, slowed from the many worries I was dragging around, turned to me during a walk and said, “Justin, put some water in your wine.” (Mettre de l’eau dans ton vin.) In other words, lighten up.

We shared a laugh as he explained the meaning and uses of this French proverb, the peculiarity of which rescued me, if only momentarily, from my thoughts.

This was only one of many lessons I’d receive during the trip, my first return there since leaving the country in 2009, after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years. In my time away, I’d forgotten how the Burkinabé use proverbs to teach lessons, to influence moods, to confront difficulties and surmount them.

Reflecting on my time there, I have recently wondered what all I had been missing, what instructions the Burkinabé could offer on the question of how to be. I stumbled across a 1982 collection of old Mossi (the major ethnic group of Burkina Faso) proverbs, Le Proverbe chez les Mossi du Yatenga (Haute-Volta), and began reading in hopes of finding out.

What follows are my favorite sayings in that collection, three much needed drops of wisdom to be infused into the muddy wine of life.


1.) “The hawk wants the goat, but does not have the strength to catch it.”(L’épervier veut la chèvre, mais n’a pas la force de l’attraper.)

The hawk wants the goat, a prisoner her freedom, an old man his youth. It is the nature of the beast to want what it can’t have.

This proverb likely originated as an observation of this. Within the Mossi Empire, same as most others, a king is born into his lot; the son of a king inherits the kingdom. But this does not stop some villagers from passing their days in reverie of power. A many a villager wastes his days dreaming about a royalty he was born outside.

So do we all, at times.

And while the proverb is, at face, a mere acknowledgement of this, its true value lay as a reminder to respect one’s biology, external and internal. In this, the proverb seems to unknowingly look to the East, teasing the Taoist principle of Te, perhaps revealing a universal truth in the process.

In Taoism, every being has her own inner nature, and adhering to this inner nature is called Te. When we respect our inner nature, our lives find harmony; when we do not, they find noise. Our lives, like pots, become a series of clanks and bangs against the steady crash of knives.

I am not on social media*—and such a simple declaration hides a very noisy struggle.

I tried to make it work for years. I wanted to be the kind of person that shares his life with confidence and ease. I wanted to be the kind of friend that roots for his buddies in public, daily. I wanted to be someone who gets likes. And I still do.

Turns out, my way of honoring that is different. The way I share my life confidently is through essays not status updates. The way I cheer on my friends is by privately showing up not publicly checking-in. The way I get likes is through the habitual practice of self-love—exercise; writing; meditation—not the thumbs-up of admirers.

As author Benjamin Hoff mentions in The Tao of Pooh, an exploration of Taoism though the adventures of Winnie the Pooh, “When you know and respect your Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don’t belong. One man’s food is another man’s poison.”

To seek another man’s food is to risk poison. But to stay within one’s comfort zone is to miss the point of the proverb. Instead of a warning to “play it safe,” the proverb is an encouragement to push the end-point of one’s truest path, and that path only.

The Tao of Pooh offers further clarity on this:

That doesn’t mean that we need to stop changing and improving. It just means that we need to recognize What’s There. If you face the fact that you have weak muscles, say, then you can do the right things and eventually become strong. But if you ignore What’s There and try to lift someone’s car out of a ditch, what sort of condition will you be in after a while… The wise know their limitation; the foolish do not. 

“Respect your inner nature” is helpful advice for any one of us seeking to make best use of our unique talents and desires, and it lies at the core of this proverb.


2.) “It’s because the kitchen has cooled that the dogs come here to lie down.”(C’est parce que le foyer s’est refroidi que les chiens viennent s’y coucher.)

Whether it’s hot or cool in the kitchen, baby, it’s cold outside.

In my hometown of Chicago, with its bleak housing market, tepid job growth, and slick politicians, it often feels cold even when it’s not. Winter is coming and going, at all times.

I feel the chill. I recently moved back to the city—and into my parents home—after two winters in Austin, TX and one in Nicaragua. And despite growing up here, I was ill prepared for the icy slip backwards.

Mild as this winter has been, the unease of returning home, along with the agony of confronting the missteps that led here, not to mention the fatigue of battling a Chicago January, February, and March again (“mild” or not), has cast me naked into the storm, distressed by the effects of climate change.

I want out. I’ve contemplated a way out each, and every, day of 2016. I’m great at out. I’ve been finding outs since the age of 17, the first of time I moved away from home, the last time I spent three consecutive years in one place.

At 30, however, I finally get it: the only way out is through.

In an article titled The Difficult Joy of Not Escaping, author Joshua Becker writes about his worst day at work and the hard-won joy of choosing to journey inward instead of onward. He decides to question his behavior that day, along with his underlying intentions and motivations, illuminating why staying—that is, patience and reflection—is so important.

About this, he writes:

It was important and worth every hard-fought moment of not giving in to the urge to turn away and escape. I was intimately introduced to my ugliest motivations and fears.

It can indeed be a humbling experience to search our hearts, to be reminded of their depravity, and have our true motivations exposed to us.

I think that is why so often we choose to escape instead. We turn on the television, a video game, Facebook, or Pinterest. We turn to alcohol, tobacco, or other substances. We eat, we run, we shop, we go back to work, or we turn to unhealthy relationships.

But when we escape our present circumstance too quickly, we miss the difficult joy of looking inward. We lose opportunity to discover the motivations behind our pride, jealousy, anger, loneliness, narcissism, or selfish pursuits.

Chicago is my opportunity to look at myself, lacks and fears and all. It’s my time to confront my hopes for the future, by engaging the demons of past and present. It’s my time to wait.

The above Mossi proverb is a reminder of that. The dog can enjoy the kitchen, and its fruits, because it had the patience to wait for them. The dog has seen himself through the dog days. So can we.


3.) One hundred slides do not prevent the tortoise from entering the pond.(Cent glissades n’empêchent pas la tortue d’entrer dans la mare.)

The tortoise gets it done, against all odds. First she outmaneuvers the hare. Now, according to this Mossi proverb, she manages to reach the apex of her goals, the pond, even after one hundred slips. Her hustle is legendary.

The tortoise has grit.

Much is being made these days of the magic virtue of grit, defined by psychologist Angela Duckworth as the “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” said to be a better predictor of success than IQ.

Grit is of utmost importance, second perhaps only to the object upon which it’s directed: the goal. Where girt may be the principal ingredient in the recipe, the goal is the recipe in full. No recipe, no grits.

J.C. Penny, iconic founder of the retail chain bearing his name, puts it this way: “Give me a stock clerk with a goal and I’ll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals and I’ll give you a stock clerk.”

It is the greatest courage to make specific and vocal one’s goal, a goal that lies at the intersection of her dreaming and her being, fueled by enthusiasm not prestige. And that comes from someone who is decidedly not goal-oriented or, more accurately, from someone who’s lacked the courage to define his own goal and move towards it.

For nearly three years, I woke up at 5AM to write. The discipline grew from a need to express myself, to make something beautiful, before the distractions of the day intruded. Sometimes I journaled; sometimes I wrote an essay; sometimes I worked on a short story. It didn’t matter, I would tell myself, as long as I was writing.

Truth is, as gleaned from my scarce work product during the time, the objective matters more than anything else, the “what” rooted in the “why.” And the why has to be bigger than the pursuit of beauty and self-expression, also more specific. On this, and the why of writing, author Sarah Manguso comments:

The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

The writer must seek to affect lives, whatever his chosen medium. This is true for him, as well as the baker, the shopkeeper, the artist, the friend. They, we, must each endeavor to make this more concrete, then resolve to make it manifest.

The tortoise arrives at the pond because she has had the unfaltering commitment to reach it—but also, because she must. Our destinations, at least recognizing them, are no less imperative.


Respect your inner nature; experience the joy of not escaping; define your goals; these lessons form a soft outline of a picture of how to be. For color, consider sifting through the proverbs of your culture and others’.


*With the exception of a personal blog, Medium.com, and a defunct Twitter account. 


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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