A Proverb of Perspective: ‘All That Glitters Isn’t Gold’

This proverb’s universal message can inspire us to look at life a little differently.
A Proverb of Perspective: ‘All That Glitters Isn’t Gold’
With its curated feeds, social media is notorious for its deceptive veneer. (MementoJpeg/Getty Images)

Proverbs are fascinating. The fact that they last over centuries and sometimes millennia shows us the profound truth they contain, since people found them worth passing along and we too can do our part to pass them on to the next generation. Reflecting on and reinforcing them in our own lives may be a valuable part of the process of continuing tradition.

To whom, or what, do we owe “All that glitters is not gold”?

“All that glitters is not gold” has been in circulation for many centuries. In Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” (1387) it appeared as follows:

“However, all that glitters is not gold, And that’s the truth as we’re often told.” (Or, in the original, Middle English, “But al thyng which that shineth as the gold, Nis nat gold, as that I have herd told.”)

This implies that the saying may have already been established by that point.

Shakespeare’s use of a nearly identical set of phrases in “The Merchant of Venice” (1596) may be what solidified the proverb for future generations. Here is the quote, replete with additional nuggets of wisdom:
“All that glisters is not gold—

Often have you heard that told.

Many a man his life hath sold

... Gilded tombs do worms enfold.” In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel “The Lord of the Rings,” the following appears, again with some additional lines of insight:
“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” Sometimes appearances can be deceiving. While we all know that, how many of us really remember it and apply it to our own lives?

Have we at times seen what others have and wanted it for ourselves? “All that glitters isn’t gold.” It just might be that what you have, or have been given, is actually the best for you. That luxury vehicle, while comfortable, costs a lot to maintain, and you have to drive far to find a garage that services it. “All that glitters isn’t gold.” With all the gold can come added pressure, stress on family relationships, health issues, and a general lack of well-being or even satisfaction.

Let’s take social media, for example. All the smiling faces and perfect-seeming lives can leave us yearning for more. But let’s be real: Every life has its challenges, and every person goes through tough things. It is important to remember that the glittering facade of a person’s online presence may not reflect the reality of their character or life.

How about new employment? A lucrative job may seem like a golden opportunity, but we would do well to assess the overall work environment, company culture, and long-term prospects. The surface-level attractiveness of a job title or salary might not reflect a fulfilling and stable career.

And take fad diets. Many of us have been there—we’ve seen a video, read an article, or read a book and tried to slim down. Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t, but ultimately the question is, what is actually good for me and my body in the long term? If I eat a certain way, will it give me energy or just make me skinny and tired?

Interestingly, the inverse of this proverb is also true: “All that doesn’t glitter isn’t not gold.” Gold in its raw form doesn’t glitter much or look special. It can look, frankly, dull. And then there is fool’s gold, or pyrite, which does, in fact, glitter but isn’t gold. If you came across real gold one day, you might not even notice it.

In terms of “All that doesn’t glitter isn’t not gold,” there is the example of lifestyles. Sometimes even the most restricted-seeming lifestyles (read: “dull”) can lead to the greatest peace of mind and family connection. I once saw a fascinating Oprah segment called “Oprah Breaks Bread with a Hasidic Family,” in which she speaks with a family whose children have never watched TV and don’t know who Mickey Mouse is. Yet they are OK with this and seem to be generally happy and pleased with the choices they have made. It’s a restricted life but a content way of being, it seems.

There may be treasures around us that we haven’t noticed yet. It could be someone in our life or something in our community and surroundings. It might not glitter, but it could be gold.

Life’s journey presents us with choices that glitter—enticing opportunities, relationships, or possessions that shimmer with promise. Yet the question becomes: What in life lasts? What brings true joy, true fulfillment, and a genuine sense of meaning? What satisfies the heart and the spirit? Wherein lies true gold?

Angelica Reis loves nature, volunteer work, her family, and her faith. She is an English teacher with a background in classical music, and enjoys uncovering hidden gems, shining them up, and sharing them with readers. She makes her home in New York state.
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