Proverbs are generally half-truths for there are always two sides to a medal. A proverb reflects strikingly one or the other, but since it is brief and pointed it is often mistaken for the whole truth. Wisdom demands that a proverb should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.
A rolling stone gathers no moss—so runs the proverb in question. It is good far as it goes. It pointedly draws our attention to the dangers that lie in too readily and frequently changing from one occupation to another. In other Words it reminds us of another remarkable saying ‘Art is long and time is short’ success in any line requires perseverance and practice. However versatile and intelligent a person may be, he cannot master an art easily. To acquire a high standard of proficiency, long apprenticeship and patience are absolutely indispensable.
A few illustrations will make the point clear. A soldier, for instance, is not made in a day, years of hard training and actual experience of fighting turn one into a real soldier. If one hopes to become a veteran by attending a few military parades he is hopelessly mistaken. Similarly, poets, painters and artists have to dedicate their whole lives to win the favour of muse of poetry or painting. Milton had to devote all his life’s energies before he could create the immortal epic Paradise Lost. Leonardo da Vinci sacrificed everything else for the sake of painting masterpieces such as Mona Lisa.
Steady and prolonged devotion to one’s work is even more significant in the art life. Vivekananda or Mahatma Gandhi, to quote only two examples were fired with extraordinary singleness of purpose. Consequently, the Swami put new life to the Vedanta and conveyed its message far and wide, while the Mahatma gave to the world a new gospel of love, peace and brotherliness. If they had frittered away their energies instead of concentrating them on their chief objectives, they would not have fulfilled their mission.
The fact is that specialization has a great place in life. Art is indeed long and time is short. One cannot do too many things and do them well. He had to pick and choose. It is far better to achieve distinction in one sphere than remain a mediocre in several activities. Man’s capacity is after all limited, though one may gloriously quote Shakespeare’s tribute: “What apiece of work is man! how noble is reason! how expressible! in action how like an angel? in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”
This much boasted god and angel—Man is really god-like and angelic only within certain limits. He is not all powerful and all knowing like God who has created the universe. Man should remember that he is not a god, but an imperfect being with obvious limitations. Those who are too conscious of the so called godliness fall a victim to conceit and consequent failure. To have a correct measure of our capacity is the first requisite of success.
Man learns by experience and experience comes only when he sticks to a particular type of work for a certain length of time. Theoretical knowledge is a very insufficient preparation for success; the practical shape of things often runs contrary to our best theories and principles. For instance, no amount of the study of books on politics and administration can make one statesman or administrator. It is a well established principle that the reins of government should be placed in the hands of seasoned public men, who during the course of their long public life, have amassed varied experience. When things took a sorry turn in England during the Second World-War the English people called Churchill—the seasoned war leader came back at the helm of affairs.
Thus, it is true to a certain extent that a rolling stone gathers no moss, while a stone with an anchor does gather some. And mass is a thing to be prized. Man needs experience, specialized knowledge, influence, reputation—this is the moss he gathers by dedicating himself to one aim, one mission in life.
But there is another side to the picture too. Man, to repeat the phrase, may gather moss but he should certainly not vegetate. Specialization and experience are valuable in life, but do they not also place a great limitation on one’s personality? The world is rich and varied and it is a bit tragic to confine oneself slavishly to a small part of it. For instance, it is indeed a highly dull and dreary prospect for a person if he must spend all his life as a clerk or a grocer’s apprentice or a mere blacksmith. Doing one thing for a long time breeds monotony and dullness. Man desires change and variety. It would certainly add to the zest and richness of a man’s life if he can do more than one thing well. Churchill was not only a great statesman and war leader, but also a first rate author and painter. Lord Mountbatten succeeded both as a great sea lord and administrator. The story of Koestler’s life goes on to narrate several other adventures and one may envy his chequered and thrilling experiences. Surely he did not fail to gather moss though he was rolling from place to place and from one occupation to another.
The heart of the matter is that though, as a rule, rolling stones gather no moss, there are many exceptions to the rule. Quite often some people do well in more than one sphere. Versatility and adaptability are as great assets as specialization and experience. Too much attention to one thing often makes one lopsided and abnormal; the harmony and balance of life are lost. The best course, perhaps is to do as many things as possible, but to do each of them well. Man should not switch on too quickly from one thing to another though at the same time he should not stick to one thing to the complete neglect of everything else.