Bad things happen. People die. War happens. Careers end. What can you say?
“This too shall pass.”
Life is temporary. Our world is temporary. It was my mother’s favorite expression. She said it to comfort me when I was unhappy, if something had gone badly. It never occurred to me the expression was more than common words a mother says to console a child.
It turns out the expression has a long, ancient history. It has been used to comfort a nation at war, a country consumed by unrest. Families, individuals, kingdoms. These are words to use when other words fail you.
“This too shall pass” (Persian: این نیز بگذرد, Arabic: لا شيء يدوم, Hebrew: גם זה יעבור) is an adage indicating that all conditions, positive or negative, are temporary.
The phrase seems to have originated in the writings of the medieval Persian Sufi poets. The phrase is often attached to a fable of a great king who is humbled by these simple words. Some versions of the fable, beginning with that of Attar of Nishapur, add the detail that the phrase is inscribed on a ring, which has the ability to make the happy man sad — and the sad man happy.
The legend of the quote finds its roots in the court of a powerful eastern Persian ruler who called his sages (wise men) to him, including the Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur, and asked them for one quote that would be accurate at all times and in all situations. The wise men consulted with one another, and threw themselves into deep contemplation, and finally came up with the answer … “This too, shall pass.”
The ruler was so impressed by the quote that he had it inscribed in a ring.
Jewish folklore often describes Solomon as giving or receiving the phrase. The adage and associated fable were popular in the first half of the 19th century, appearing in a collection of tales by the English poet Edward Fitzgerald and also used by Abraham Lincoln in a speech before he became President.
And when words fail me, my mother’s voice echoes in my head.