Words to Live by: Adopt a Motto

June 25, 2019 Updated: June 25, 2019

According to one online dictionary, a motto is “a short sentence or phrase chosen as encapsulating the beliefs or ideals guiding an individual, family, or institution.”

Here are a few of the more famous mottos.

“Ora et labora,” or “work and pray,” is the motto of the Benedictines, the West’s oldest religious order.

“Dieu Et Mon Droit,” French for “God and my right (shall me defend),” belongs to the British monarchy.

For Harvard University there is the simple “Veritas,” meaning “Truth.”

One of my favorites, “Dum spiro, spero,” which translates as “While I breathe, I hope,” is one of two mottos of the state of South Carolina.

“Esse quam videri,” “to be rather than to seem,” are the words on the Great Seal of South Carolina’s sister state. Legend has it that North Carolina adopted this slogan because it lay between Virginia and South Carolina, whose citizens the Tar Heels regarded as pretentious and conceited.

The British Order of the Garter’s “Honi soit qui mal y pense” is French for “May he be shamed who thinks badly of it.”

These powerful, pithy sayings sum up the philosophy of a group or an individual, and fire up their enthusiasm. Consider just a few military mottos, which exemplify the esprit de corps of a particular unit. “Semper fidelis,” shortened to “Semper Fi,” brings to mind Marine Corps drill sergeants, boot camp, and scores of battles fought from “The Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.” At their Coronado, California, training center, the Navy Seals remind candidates that “The only easy day was yesterday.” The personnel of the British Special Air Service adhere to “Who dares wins.” The All Gorkha Rifles of India serve under the fierce, blunt maxim “Kayar hunu bhanda marnu ramro,” or “Better to die than to live like a coward.” The Jesuits, a religious order, yes, but founded by an ex-soldier and once nicknamed the Soldiers of Christ, are famous for “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam,” or “For the Greater Glory of God.”

We all live with mottos. If we are Americans, then we proclaim, though perhaps less fervently than we once did, “In God we trust.” If we live in Virginia, as I do now, then some of us are familiar with our state’s admonition “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” or “Thus always to tyrants.” If we were Scouts, then “Be prepared” is forever emblazoned on our hearts. If we attended military schools, then we swore homage to such maxims as Staunton Military Academy’s “Truth, Duty, Honor” or West Point’s “Duty, Honor, Country.”

Some families adopt mottos to guide and inspire them. Medieval nobility decked out their coats of arms with words of inspiration and warning. Later European families continued this tradition. The Churchill family, for example, mysteriously chose Spanish for its motto, “Fiel Pero Desdichado” (Faithful Though Unblessed). 

Even today some families choose mottos to unite and inspire parents and children. Google “family mottos,” and you will find half-a-dozen sites sporting suggested mottos and advocating for the efficacy of such mission statements. In her excellent “Family Mottos,” for example, Cassie Damewood tells readers the benefits of adopting a family motto, provides many examples, and takes us through a step-by-step process of how to go about choosing a motto.

Finally, some of us adopt individual mottos. Often we look to those words as a banner to carry us through a personal battle, to buck us up, to hearten us when we have little left other than words to face the conflict surrounding us.

Not so long ago, I went through the worst two years of my life. Though others helped make these years horrific, I was also very much at fault. My world came crashing down, and for a while I crashed along with it. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote “…in the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” That observation sums up my life during that terrible time.

About nine months into my ordeal, I awoke one morning, picked up a black marker, went to the glass door of my basement apartment, and wrote “Invictus” in large letters.

“Invictus.”

Unconquered.

Every day that eight-letter word passed before my eyes. Sometimes I mocked it with a bitter smile and a shake of the head, sometimes I cursed it, and always I brooded on it.  

Eventually, however, “Invictus” became my byword, my elixir for my self-inflicted wounds.

Two other epigrams also served as medicine for those lacerations of the spirit. The first was a Latin adage attributed to Hannibal by the Romans, a maxim I had once taught my students when they faced difficult times: “Inveniemus viam aut viam faciemus.” “We will find a way or make a way.” Circumstances forced me to find a way out of my troubles or make a way, or else yield to hopelessness and despair. Second up was a coffee mug my demure daughter-in-law gave me when she became aware of my pain. The inscription on the mug read “Non illigetimi carborundum, ” a mock-Latin saying translated roughly as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” If nothing else, given my daughter-in-law’s sweet personality, the mug often brought a smile.

Then there was the motto of my own devising from 25 years earlier: “Today is going to be an adventure.” The morning I woke with those long-neglected words in my head, knowing that the day ahead of me could indeed be an adventure, I realized that my self-inflicted wound was healing, that there were still good things I could do, that I could once again reclaim, armor dented, sword blunted, older in countenance and subdued in spirit, a place to stand in the world.

If you are in dire straits, broken and storm-tossed, if you are sinking and can see neither shore nor lighthouse, look for life-preserving words. Sometimes those words may be all we have. And sometimes they have the power to rescue us.

Invictus.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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