Joshua Gibbs has an ongoing series, Proverbial, wherein he meditates on proverbs presented throughout the ages. These proverbs are, in his words, “wise sayings a man my live by if he is not too arrogant to think himself special.” The following is my attempt to contribute to Mr. Gibbs’s project.
The proverb I’ll bring forward is:
“Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk.”
“Don’t cry over spilled milk,” is an English proverb first seen in print in James Howell’s 1659 collection of English proverbs as “No weeping for shed milk.” It has subsequently been used by several notable writers and publications, including Jonathan Swift in 1738.
The most common interpretation of the proverb is a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. Once milk has been spilled, there is not much you can do about it, so don’t waste time crying over it and worry about things you can control.
This sentiment is reminiscent of the Stoics. Zeno of Citium, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca (to name only a few) belonged to the philosophical school of Stoicism. Today, we use the term “stoic” synonymously with “emotionless” or “reactionary.” However, the Stoics offer more wisdom than its modern reduction.
Stoics believed Philosophy (here I mean the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, and virtue) concerned only what is beneficial to humans. Epictetus, for example, postulated any knowledge that expands upon what we cannot control is useless, and therefore the wise man only troubles himself with that which can be controlled. In situations of suffering, for example, one cannot control the forces that bring upon suffering, however, you can control your reaction to it. Epictetus writes in one of my favorite quotes:
“’I will throw you into prison.’Epictetus, Discourses, Book I, 1.24
‘Correction- it is my body you will throw there.’
‘I will behead you.’
‘Well, when did I ever claim that mine was the only neck that couldn’t be severed?’
That is the kind of attitude you need to cultivate if you would be a philosopher, the sort of sentiment you should write down every day and put into practice.”
As much wisdom the Stoics have to offer, they offer folly as well. Epictetus and Paul would likely respond very similarly if imprisoned for their teachings, but would Epictetus approve of Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus? Would the stoics endorse such biblical teachings like “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” and “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance,”? Would they join in with Job’s friends advising him to cease his mourning, curse God and die?
So, if “don’t cry over spilled milk” would have us ignore the things we cannot control to focus only on that which we can, ancient Christian disciplines like lamenting, fasting, intercessory prayer, tithing, and any other practice where we surrender our control in submission to God’s power and authority would all be for naught.
I’m skeptical that this proverb would guide us to focus only on what is in our control. I would argue it does not contradict the Christian disciplines listed above, but takes on a different meaning.
I have been thinking about this proverb a lot recently because I am at a stage of life that I am constantly surrounded by milk. My daughter was born just three months ago, and milk is her only food. My wife has been pumping milk, and whatever our daughter does not eat, we save for later or store it in the freezer. It seems as if every nook in my house has bottles of breast milk. The proverb comes to mind often because I am clumsy and spill the milk.
I wonder why the proverb speaks of spilled milk instead of water that is more vital to life, or wine that is much easier to spill. Milk may have played a more vital nutritional role in the 17th century than it does today, but milk will always be necessary to mammalian life. Milk is familiar. Every human life that has survived has in part been because of milk.
However, milk is also juvenile. Milk, particularly breast milk, is necessary for infants, but we eventually move away from our reliance upon it. Milk is a part of our shared experience, relatable to all humans. This is why Paul, Peter, and the writer of Hebrews use milk as metaphors for spiritual growth.
- “Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, because you were not yet ready for it,”
-1 Corinthians 3:1-2
- “Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk, so that you may grow by it for your salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good,”
-1 Peter 2:2.
- “Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basic principles of God’s revelation again. You need milk, not solid food. Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced with the message about righteousness, because he is an infant. but solid food is for the mature- for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil,”
Milk is related to youth. It is the food of the immature. Those who would be spilling milk are not those who are making major, life-altering mistakes. Therefore, to not cry over spilled milk would not suggest not to weep over the death of a friend, the disease of a loved one, or the suffering of a people.
The drinking of milk is for the immature, and it naturally elicits a call to progress to solid food. So, if spilling milk is a minor mistake with relatively few consequences, to not cry over it is to learn from the small mistake while your mistakes are still small. Mistakes ought to be lessons that propel you further instead of hold you back.
The man who doesn’t cry over spilled milk is not a man who is indifferent to the things he knows he cannot control; rather, he is a man who is not hindered by his failures but uses them as fuel in his journey to wisdom, virtue, and excellence.