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Better Sorry Than Safe?

Beware of clichés: They can set you on the right path—but also lead you astray.

Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

I’ve always been intrigued by clichés that, while embodying precious nuggets of wisdom, nonetheless contradict other clichés. So on the one hand, we have “Better safe than sorry,” yet on the other, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” How, then, do we reconcile these opposing verities? And can we? The renowned physicist Niels Bohr presented the dilemma this way: “The opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

The most fascinating thing about familiar proverbs is how frequently they’re stated as absolutes: as simple, everlasting truths. And to be sure, despite the fact that they can actually contradict one another, there is a kind of unqualified, absolute (though not unlimited) truth about them. To take one instance, we have “Out of sight, out of mind,” and its contrasting absolute, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” And we also have, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” as well as “Opportunity only knocks once,” counterbalanced by such expressions as “good things come to those who wait” (counseling patience—vs. taking initiative—to get what you want). And there are countless other examples of the absolutist nature of many (if not most) aphorisms, such as “practice makes perfect” and “love conquers all.”

In the real world, however—where truth is generally related to a specific context, or to an indefinite number of environmental contingencies—these otherwise incontestable truths are quite contestable. And definitely need to be contested. Take the expression: “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Isn’t consciously allowing yourself to love another fully—metaphorically, to “give your heart to them”—a rather precarious sort of venture? And, by definition, don’t all ventures involve significant risks? Yet wouldn’t most of us agree that, as opposed to “playing it safe” (rather than risk being sorry later on), it’s generally worth “taking a chance on love” [to employ an additional platitude]?

So if we decide to live by the dictum “better safe than sorry,” aren’t we in effect exhorting ourselves to avoid risks for fear that we might fail, be defeated, and wind up licking our wounds? And if we’re governed by such fear—that is, resolved to live our life in self-protective mode—what would be the likely result of making this precept an “absolute” for ourselves? Sure, we’d avoid numerous hazards intimately connected to making ourselves vulnerable. But at what cost?


And though it’s undeniably true that we can’t know in advance whether an undertaking or involvement will turn out the way we want, consider Helen Keller’s illustrious quote: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Which is to say, if our behavior is guided—or better, dictated—by the maxim to “play it safe,” we may end up experiencing existence as dull, empty, and endlessly frustrating. Not to mention devoid of the fulfillment that so often depends on our very willingness to take risks. And it’s precisely through daring to take such risks that over time we’re better able to manage them.

And how about the almost perpendicular cliché, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”? The suggestion here is not to let failure defeat you but, rather than feeling sorry for yourself and renounce further effort, to be resilient and keep trying until you do succeed. “Better safe than sorry,” though in one sense hardly even debatable, unfortunately implies a passive, resigned attitude cautioning you to, well, not “go out on a limb.” But then, as humorist Will Rogers wisely quipped: “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.

In other words, it’s generally worth the risk of attempting, but not quite being able, to achieve what you pursue. After all, you can always pick yourself up, move on, and devise a new strategy for obtaining the object of your desire. Besides, how else can you expect to develop resilience? For remaining persistent in the face of adversity sooner or later almost guarantees success. Ultimately, it’s about—to employ yet another oft-repeated adage—“making your own luck” by choosing not to back down or give up.

At this point what should be evident is that many sayings, as profound as they may be, are not without ambiguity. They’re certainly memorable, for they can assist you in acting, and reacting, thoughtfully in a broad variety of situations. But at the same time, if you’re to behave judiciously, you need to reflect on the different implications of any maxim to accurately determine whether, in fact, it applies to your particular situation.

For example, it’s obviously senseless to “try, try again” if what you’re endeavoring to learn, or execute, is forever beyond your capability. For regardless of your efforts, you simply may not have the potential to, say, master the Icelandic language, or grasp the Theory of Relativity; or, for that matter, run a four-minute mile. So in these instances, it’s both foolish and futile to keep expending energy in what might best be referred to as (another cliché!) “an exercise in futility.” If you repeatedly bang your head against a concrete wall, no matter how many times you do so you’re not going to put a dent in it, but rather give yourself a five-star headache (if not concussion)

So yes, admittedly, there are abundant circumstances where it’s better—even much better—to be safe than sorry. But those circumstances need to be judiciously understood as involving scenarios in which (1) chances of success are truly remote, and (2) the time and effort required to succeed in the endeavor plainly don’t warrant the risk. However, what must also be considered is that there are a tremendous number of circumstances in which your better judgment might be to undertake something challenging or problematic because (1) the potential satisfactions or rewards of success clearly outweigh the costs of possible failure, (2) there’s a decent chance that, with enough effort, you will succeed, and (3) even if you don’t succeed, you’ll have learned something to improve the odds that you’ll do so in the future.

To conclude, clichés that have endured the “test of time” have done so because they really do offer us useful insights on how to live. But because they’re typically stated so simply (i.e., without qualification), they have to be taken (and please excuse me again) “with a grain of salt.” So take the general truth of clichés seriously. But don’t proceed to act on them until you feel certain that they fit your particular situation.

And while you’re at it, you might just consider related clichés—which could redirect your thinking in a whole new direction (!).

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© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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