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Dennis Myers: Tracing a good piece of advice

Last weekend I went to see the new movie, “Wonder.”

It portrays the first school year of a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome, described by the National Institute of Health as “a condition that affects the development of bones and other tissues of the face.”

The boy in the movie was homeschooled until cosmetic surgeries had reduced but not eliminated the deformation of his face, after which he entered a middle school. The movie depicts the tribulations he endures until those around him discover the real person under his deformity and their own decency.

The screenplay is based on a novel which, in turn, is reportedly based on the experiences of 13-year-old Nathaniel Newman, now a resident of Reno.

At the end of the movie, the boy as narrator quotes an old saying as something like, “Be kind because everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

Many years ago, in the days of mimeograph machines, I volunteered to type, from handwritten notes written by a church official, the mimeograph stencil for the monthly bulletin of my church in Reno. I did it for a year or two. At least one of them bore this saying at the top: “Be kind. Nearly everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It was attributed to T.H. Thompson. It was the first time I encountered this quotation.

I didn’t know who T.H. Thompson was, and still don’t (there have been a lot of them in history, from vicars to physicians), but according to the internet there are many people who still attribute this saying to him/her.

But over the years I encountered the quotation several times, not always in the mouth of Mr. or Ms. Thompson. It was variously attributed to Maimonides, Ian MacLaren, Philo of Alexandria, Plato, and John Watson.

Watson, like Thompson, is unidentified, as there have been numerous prominent John Watsons in history (and in fiction, for that matter). But John Watson was the real name of the above-mentioned Ian MacLaren, who was a Scot and church figure who published his sermons under his real name and other books under his MacLaren pen name.

Anyway, the state of affairs of this one quotation being attributed to miscellaneous people went along for decades until recently when things were cleared up a good deal. In the process, we learned that not only did the movie misquote the saying, but so does nearly everyone else.

The way I learned it on my church bulletin was incorrect.

There is a website called the Quote Investigator, written by Garson O’Toole. In 2010, he dealt with this quote, but his writing is somewhat confusing. He seems to say he did not do the actual research, which was done by a Fred Shapiro, but the link provided does not lead to a discussion of this quote, so I’m not sure which of them to credit. At any rate, this is what O’Toole/Garson found:

The oldest known version of the quote was rendered as “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.” It appeared that way attributed to MacLaren in the 1890s and in a book by Watson in 1903. Many of the T.H. Thompson citations of the quote appear in this older version.

Language evolves. In those days, “pitiful” and “kind” meant pretty much the same thing. Today, having pity for someone and being pitiful are not the same thing. So we humans seem to have worked over Watson’s original saying and reworded it in a way that works for us.

At any rate, it is a saying well worth saving.

In a day and age when our leaders do their best to bring out the worst in us, when pitting us against each other works for journalists and commercial advertisers, when swagger and bluster are revered and intellect and decency disdained, and when good people are exploited and the callous are admired, when pain is ignored and celebrity keeps us distracted, a saying reminding us that kindness has practical use is well worth preserving.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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