Proverbs and Sayings on Life [With Meanings]

Proverbs and sayings are popular nuggets of wisdom, often in circulation for centuries and even millenniums. They’re different from quotes, which are relatively recent and can often be attributed to a well-known person.

You may find more proverbs here:

Note: Origin of the saying, wherever available, is mentioned next to it in square brackets.

A. You’re not the only one to face difficulties

Everyone faces difficulties in life. Everyone. So, if you set your expectations right – that is you take difficulties as an integral part of life – you’ll be less despondent next time when something untoward happens.

1. Every white has its black, and every sweet its sour.

If there is white, there is black. If there is sweet, there is sour. If there are easy times, there are difficult times.

Here are five more with the same meaning.

2. Every path has its puddle.

3. Every flow must have its ebb.

4. One day honey, one day onion. [Arabic]

5. Life is not all beer and skittles.

6. He who wants a rose must respect the thorn. [Persian]

7. Man proposes but God disposes.

Plans don’t necessarily go as expected. God has his own plans, which include both good and bad events for us.

8. We all have our cross to bear.

No one is free from suffering.

B. But difficult times serve a purpose

Difficult times aren’t there just to bring misery to our lives. They teach us. They forge us. They improve us.

9. Failure teaches you more than success.

Difficult times teach us much more than peaceful times. Don’t they?

Here is another with the same meaning.

10. Adversity is a great schoolmaster.

11. A dose of adversity is often as needful as a dose of medicine.

Even though bitter pills are unpleasant to swallow, they’ve beneficial effect on our health. Similarly, difficult times are tough to go through, but they have beneficial effect on our personal growth.

Here is another with the same meaning.

12. Bitter pills may have blessed effects.

13. The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf that keeps the caribou strong.

If predators don’t challenge the prey, the prey will get weak over time. Difficulties (wolf) make our lives challenging, but the very same difficulties make us (caribou) strong.

14. Calamity is man’s true touchstone.

Calamity separates chaff from the wheat, weak from the strong.

15. If you survived a storm, you won’t be bothered by the rain.

If you survive difficult times, minor problems in future would hardly bother you. Remember, these will be minor for you because you’ve already faced bigger challenges, but for others even these could be shattering.

16. April showers bring May flowers.

Showers maybe unpleasant, but they’re followed by something pleasant.

17. The hammer shatters glass but forges steel. [Russian]

Difficulties make strong (steel) stronger and beat the weaker (glass).

18. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

If we survive difficult time, we emerge stronger out of it.

19. It is the great north wind that made the Vikings [Scandinavian]

The biting cold wind (the difficulties) from the north made Vikings hardy.

20. A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor a man perfected without trials.

Raw gem needs to be rubbed before its polished, precious version emerges. Likewise, stronger, better version of people emerges after they go through challenging times.

21. All sunshine makes the desert. [Arabic]

Only sunshine – and no rain – makes it difficult for vegetation to grow. Similarly, only good times – and no difficult times – make us weak.

Here is another with the same meaning.

22. If there were no clouds, we would not enjoy the sun.

23. A man who cannot tolerate small misfortunes can never accomplish great things.

Paths to great things are full of obstacles, big and small. If you get rattled by small misfortunes, how will you overcome big odds.

C. Sometimes, you feel trapped

24. The man who is born in a stable is not a horse.

Many feel trapped in life because of circumstances, present or past. Someone from underprivileged background may think that big things are not meant for her and that she is destined for things commensurate with her background. But that’s not true. It’s a mindset problem. We can achieve big things despite our suboptimal circumstances. What’s needed is belief and action. Daniel Seagull, a cognitive psychologist, in his book Mindsight mentions how we can snap negative thoughts from the past that bog us down.

Here is another with the same meaning.

25. There’s many a good cock come out of a tattered bag.

D. We all die

26. Nothing is certain but death and taxes.

No one escapes death.

27. The fairest rose is at last withered.

Even the most beautiful rose will eventually wither. No one escapes death.

28. Life is not separate from death. It only looks that way. [Native American]

After life comes death. Every living day takes us closer to death. That’s an immutable law of nature.

29. Today you; tomorrow me.

Today you die. Tomorrow, I. It’s a reminder that we all will die.

30. The sea refuses no river.

Like the journey of all rivers end with sea, our journey ends with death.

31. Death is a grand leveler.

We all die whether we’re rich or poor, powerful or weak, tall or short…. Death is a grand leveler.

Here are two more with the same meaning.

32. After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box. [Italian]

33. He who must die must die in the dark, even though he sells candles. [Columbian]

34. Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names. [Spanish]

We all die, but good men are remembered long after they died.

35. If you can’t live longer, live deeper. [Italian]

Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, said, “You’ll be dead soon, so why live someone else’s life”. Life is short, so live with purpose and meaning.

36. Live your own life, for you will die your own death. [Latin]

Many conform to societal pressures of looking a certain way, living a certain lifestyle, and so on, which may be at odds with who they are as a person. The proverb calls on to live own life and not succumb to societal pressures.

E. Minimize worry and stress

We all die, and life is short. Then why shoot ourselves in the foot by further shortening it and making it miserable by taking unnecessary stress.

37. The tongue always returns to the sore tooth.

Our thoughts constantly run towards problem(s) we’re facing at that time.

38. The dog returns to its vomit.

Just as a dog returns to something that isn’t good for him (vomit), we return to those very habits (worry) that are bad for us.

39. What will Mrs. Grundy say?

We unduly worry about what others may think or say about our actions and act accordingly.

Here is another with the same meaning.

40. We’re all slaves of opinion.

41. Fretting cares make grey hairs.

Worrying ages us prematurely.

42. It is not work that kills, but worry.

Worry and stress are worse than overwork for our health.

43. You don’t shit where you eat.

If you want to keep worries at bay, you need to compartmentalize different areas of your life. So, don’t bring work to home, and vice versa.

44. Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it.

Don’t worry about something till you face it. Quite often, fears are unfounded and don’t come true, implying they affect peace of mind and health for nothing.

45. Let the dead bury the dead.

Do not worry about past things that have no impact on present.

46. Past cure, past care.

Can you do anything if you’re stuck in traffic jam or your flight is delayed? It is no use worrying about something on which you have no control.

47. Make haste slowly.

If you’re unrushed, you’ll be less stressed. Derek Sivers, an American writer, musician, programmer and entrepreneur, used to cycle a 15-mile loop in 43 minutes when he went full on, but such heavy effort made the ride less enjoyable. Then he decided to cycle in relaxed manner, enjoying the ocean and surroundings on the way. This took 45 minutes, hardly any difference but far more enjoyable journey.

F. How life unfolds is mostly about choices we make

48. Every road has two directions. [Russian]

Like every road has two directions, most goals have more than one choice. Each choice will shape your life differently. It of course won’t matter for minor things such as where to dine, but it does for major things, with the big ones such as career profoundly impacting your life and wellbeing. This, by the way, holds for nations as well. Because of the choices some countries have made, they’ve ascended or descended on prosperity chart.

49. Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.

Ten percent of times we can’t do much about what happens to us (say, a drunk driver hits us), but on ninety percent occasions, we can. In the latter case, how our life shapes boils down to the choice we make. For example, if someone provokes you for little reason, you may either ignore him or get into a fight. If you choose the former, you’ll forget the incident in few hours, and life will chug along the same way. But if you get into a fight, the result could go any way, potentially affecting your life. That’s how road rage happens: small argument leading to life-altering incident.

50. Burden of one’s own choice is never felt.

If a decision – say college, career, or life partner – comes from own choice, we don’t feel bad if it turns out to be bad, implying we should make own choices in life.

51. Life is what you make it.

Life isn’t pre-destined. Your choices and actions on those choices shape it.

We face these choices in different shapes and sizes. The two common ones are:

F1. Let go pent-up feelings or not?

Many simmer, for years, with pent-up anger over real or perceived injustice to them, making their lives miserable. Nelson Mandela chose to forgive prison officers who illtreated him for decades, when he had the choice of acting otherwise. It’s a choice we make, which determines our happiness.

52. Be like a tree. Stay grounded, keep growing, and know when to let go.

Like a tree let its fruits and leaves go from time to time, you should let go pent-up anger and hatred.

53. To err is human. To forgive, divine.

We all make mistakes, but it’s important to forgive the wrongdoer and move ahead.

Here is another with the same meaning.

54. Forgive and forget.

F2. React to small insults or not?

As described in proverb 49, small incidents can die a natural death or snowball into a life-altering event. It depends on what choice you make.

55. It takes two to tango.

Both the persons in an argument or fight are responsible for it. If one decides to back off, the argument will die.

56. A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.

A fool expresses his annoyance to an insult immediately, whereas a wise person ignores the insult. If you react to all such barbs and javelins thrown at you, you’ll invite unnecessary stress.

Here is another with the same meaning.

57. Only one who can swallow an insult is a man. [Chinese]

58. Dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.

People will talk behind your back, say nasty things about you, and sometimes even provoke you. Ignore them and keep moving ahead on your path.

G. Does karma (or deeds) affect life

Does karma play a role? Plenty of proverbs say ‘yes’. The last one in the section speculates how karma works.

59. Old sins cast long shadows. [Irish]

Bad deeds can have long-term effects.

60. They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.

Evil actions have negative consequences. If we act bad, its consequences will come to us sooner or later.

Here are five more with the same meaning.

61. As you sow, so shall you reap.

62. What goes around comes around.

63. As you make your bed, so you must lie in it.

64. He who digs a hole for someone will fall in it himself.

65. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

66. What is got over the devil’s back is spent under his belly.

One’s actions will eventually have consequences for self. For example, ill-gotten money will eventually be wasted in useless pursuits or will bring harm to self.

67. The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.

Justice may take long time to come, but it’ll eventually come. There is a scientific take on this proverb. Is it God’s intervention that does the justice? Or is it something else? When we read in the newspaper that a gangster has been killed in an encounter by police, a common reaction is that God has finally punished him or his victims’ curse has finally caught up with him. If that’s true then why some gangsters die a natural death, free and jaunty. In reality, it’s all about probability. If a person takes plenty of risk, he faces a high probability of some misfortune. That’s why a gangster is much more likely to be shot dead, either by police or in a gang war, or land in prison than a random person on the street. And because it’s all about probability, some gangsters will escape this fate and end up with a fine life. To give an example of this in play, I remember reading in newspaper few years back about a murderer on the run for seven years (he lived in disguise in a nearby city) who eventually died of health complications at a relatively young age. Some may call it justice meted by God, but what felled him was health complications arising likely out of constant stress of remaining underground. If we dig deep, we may find some rationale behind God’s will.

H. Do destiny and luck play a role

Some believe in destiny. Some don’t. Proverbs and sayings in this section all point to role of destiny in life, but if you look at the section on making choices, you may realize that what we call as fate or destiny may just be a good or bad choice made. Talking of luck, studies show you can minimize its role (see the last proverb in this section).

68. Every bullet has a billet.

Destiny decides whether we live or die. This is another reason for worrying less about illness and other problems.

69. If a man is destined to drown, he will drown even in a spoonful of water [Yiddish]

Destiny decides our fate.

70. One meets his destiny often in the road he takes to avoid it [French]

Sometimes we choose a path to avoid something, but circumstances send us on a detour that eventually leads us to that something we wanted to avoid in the first place. As the destiny wills.

71. Perseverance is the mother of good luck.

Those who persevere experience good luck.

You can’t be unluckier than Nick Vujicic: He was born with no limbs. But he decided to turn his luck around, and he did. He has addressed audiences thousands of times, has written eight books, acted in a short film, done a music video, and runs a non-profit.

Working hard, taking chances make you lucky as Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at University of Hertfordshire has shown though his research on the subject. In his book, The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind, he mentions four basic principles lucky people follow to get lucky:

  1. They create and notice chance opportunities.
  2. They make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition.
  3. They create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations.
  4. They adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

So, if you’ve been unlucky, then you’re probably depending on luck to be lucky.

I. What to expect from God

72. Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry.

Put your trust in God, but don’t depend on divine intervention. Put in the effort. Give your best.

Here are five more with the same meaning.

73. Do not stand in a place of danger trusting in miracles. [Arabic]

74. God gives the nuts but he does not crack them. [German]

75. Trust in God but tie your camel.

76. God helps those who help themselves.

77. God feeds the birds that use their wings.

The last proverb doesn’t belong to any section. It summarizes how to lead a good life.

J. Others

78. While the grass grows, the horse starves.

We wait for the grass to grow to certain length before feeding it to the horse, and the horse starves to death waiting. A similar situation is not uncommon in our lives. We wait for certain events to happen before we enjoy life, but we waste so much time waiting that horse starves to death. So, don’t wait for the circumstances to be perfect before taking the plunge.

79. Life is hard by the yard, but by the inch life’s a cinch.

Life is less overwhelming if you take it one step at a time.

80. The head and feet keep warm, the rest will take no harm.

If you take care of important things in your life – friends, family, finances, health, etc. – other things will fall in place.

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