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It’s that time again – Say What? is back!  Today we’ll be taking a look at a couple of sayings that give some insight into both hope and reality.  Let’s get right into better to light a candle than to curse the darkness and man’s reach exceeds his grasp, and we’ll be enlisting the characters from the Magnificent Seven movie to help.

Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

This saying sounds older than it probably is.  While some sources claim that it has its origins in an ancient Chinese proverb, the first recorded use was in 1907, by the minister William Lonsdale Watkinson, who used it in sermons he delivered.

The religious link is a solid one. The Christian Bible often uses darkness to signify evil, ignorance, or tribulations, and “seeing the light,” of course, can mean realizing one’s faith.  Light can also be considered a metaphor for hope.  But religious context aside, if you have some kind of trouble, it’s better to find some way to deal with it, no matter how small, rather than just railing at it.  A candle isn’t a lot of light, but having one lit is better than sitting in the darkness.

Some troubles are bigger than others, but it all comes down to how we deal with them:

There were a couple of fresh graves beside the burnt-out shell of the church, and Chisolm was sure there’d be a fair few more before this week was out.  Emma knelt by one of the graves, and Chisolm thought she might be weeping, but when she looked up at him, her eyes were dry.

“You are a remarkable woman, Miz Cullen,” Chisolm said quietly. “Faced with that kind of loss on top of the troubles this town has, most people would give way to despair.”

Emma got to her feet, shaking the dirt from her skirt.  “I have always believed that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, Mister Chisolm.  Besides, there’ll be time for grieving when this fight is over.”

Man’s reach exceeds his grasp.

This is actually part of a line from “Andrea del Sarto,” a poem by Robert Browning.  It was originally published in 1855 as part of Men and Women.  The full line quote is “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”  Like many of Browning’s works, the poem is a dramatic monologue, in this case delivered by the Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto, also known as Andrea d’Angolo.

How does one’s reach exceed one’s grasp? Well, it’s a matter of anatomy, really.  You can just brush your fingers on the spine of that book on the high shelf, but you can’t quite get hold of it to pull it down, or at least not without bringing the whole bookshelf down on top of you.  As humans, we can understand a great deal about the world around us, but there are some things that, while we understand the mechanics or the theory, we just can’t quite make or do on our own.  Browning reminds us that nothing worth having is easy, and that even if attaining a particular goal turns out to be impossible, it’s still worth the attempt.

Some goals aren’t just impossible:

Faraday stopped just inside the saloon door.  The other men, save Chisolm, were all gathered around one of the tables, sitting together in silence.  Horne had his eyes closed and looked like he was praying.  Goodnight, his hand wrapped around a bottle like it belonged there, caught Faraday’s glance and shook his head.  “Let him,” he said before Faraday could say a word.  “Chances are slim we’ll all make it out of this.”

“If there’s a chance at all,” Faraday replied, “you gotta take it and run with it.  You don’t want to start thinking that man’s reach should exceed his grasp…

“Or what’s a heaven for?” Goodnight finished with a lopsided smile.  “Why, Mister Faraday, I didn’t know you were inclined to poetry.”

“Oh, crap, was that poetry?” Faraday shook his head.  “My momma would be so disappointed.”

Any time that your characters speak about persevering through adversity or trying hard to succeed at a difficult task, these sayings can be slipped into your work.  Hope springs eternal, after all.



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