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#3 - English Proverb: A Stitch in Time Saves Nine
Reflections about the dangers of delayed action.
This is another edition of Proverbs on Blast, a newsletter that publishes reflection on PROVERBS and the gems they offer for personal and professional growth. Posts are written by a lifelong learner on a quest for more wisdom (me). Subscriptions make it possible for me to expand the form and reach of each post.
This proverb is an oldie and a goodie, one that’s tossed around a lot. It’s a popular English proverb that children hear and most grow to adopt and use for the rest of their adult life. You’ve probably used it with others, or as a reminder to yourself. I bring it up here because three unrelated incidents in the last 48 hours brought it back to my consciousness.
D (hubby) had a late-night request: “Please help fix this pocket of my shirt.” He had an early-morning appointment and discovered the night before that the pocket of his favored shirt had ripped slightly at the seam. It needed a few stitches and he begged me to help. However, I had already checked out mentally and become a couch zombie. So, I talked him out of wearing the shirt and he found an alternative.
But early the next morning, he changed his mind. He still wanted to wear his shirt with the ripped seam. He assumed that I had stitched it or he would wing it. Well, I had not fixed it. After examining the rip in the night, I figured it needed three stitches. In my zombied headspace at the time, I folded the shirt and placed it in the bathroom as a simple task to tackle the following afternoon.
Undeterred, the man decided to wear his shirt with the rip the following morning. Fortunately, it was a dark colored shirt with bold patterns that hid the small flap from the tear.
Later that evening, I had to put 18 stitches in. An odd-shaped key on D’s heavy bunch had caught the edge of the pocket and pulled out a few loose stitches. His attempts to pull it out extended the rip to the full length of one side of the pocket. I spent more time and effort to fix it. I also used up more thread. Instead of the 3 stitches the shirt needed the night before, I had to put in 18 stitches less than twenty-four hours later.
That same evening, we met someone I had heard a lot of great things about but not met in person. It was great to finally be able to put a face to the name and experience some of the sterling accounts about this person. he looked as distinguished as I had heard. There was a sparkle to him as his words landed in a measured cadence that conveyed authority, experience, and warmth. His face was kind, his voice was sensitive, and there was an aura about him that he could be a source of life-transforming wisdom. But I noticed that he stayed glued to his seat and turned his neck only ever so slightly a few times.
I realized within minutes that this amazing man’s dazzling exterior masked a restricting condition and deep pain. He had ventured out of his house on a day that he woke up wracked with pain and immobilized for hours. His sweet wife was his crutch for the short commute to see their college friends who were in town. Their two families had been friends for more than three decades and he didn’t want to bail on the invitation to see them.
He made it through dinner. Seated opposite him at the table, I saw him wince several times and was charmed by the sweet attentiveness of his wife to his needs. Through his pain, unbeknownst to him, his positivity and grace were on display. I was intrigued by how he remained unflinching in sweetness even as pain flashed through his features several times.
Later, I asked about the mystery of his condition. And I heard how he’s had back pain for decades, back in college when our mutual friends met him. He thought it was nothing. Everyone thought it was nothing. By the time he thought it was worth checking out, the cause of the pain had degenerated and led to extensive damage in several areas of his back, including his spine. He’s had two surgeries recently and has a third one scheduled. In the interim, the muscle spasms and pinched nerves mar his days with excruciating pain. Some days, he can’t even get out of bed. Every day that he is able to, he gets around only with the aid of medication and a human or a cane.
Today, I had a girl’s time with a dear friend. We worked on some challenging projects through the pandemic and stayed in touch via zoom and phone. Usually, our conversations include reflections on women in leadership. We constantly probe how we show up as women leaders, discuss models we can learn from, call out toxic red flags that we see or read about, and pledge to be the best leaders we can be in our dealings with others. I have grown to appreciate our sisterhood of encouraging, inspiring, and supporting each other with honest detailed feedback and accountability. This was our first meeting in 2.5 years and the long overdue coffee and conversation hangout helped us catch up on several fronts.
It didn’t take us long to get to the topic of current happenings in her work life and office. We probed an ongoing experience with a toxic leader in her organization who operated for years on deceit, drama, and mischaracterizations of colleagues and subordinates in her office. Mrs. Toxin fabricated and embellished so much that she destroyed people’s trust in their colleagues and the organization. Several weeks after her departure, the lies have been crumbling, walls are down, trust is being rebuilt, and staff morale is up again.
Out of curiosity, I asked why it took them so long to figure out that that one person was the problem. She said they pondered the same question and the manager said that he wanted to avoid drama that Mrs. Toxin embodied and so ignored the chaos around her. Because of his decision, a top talent left. Another almost did but did not get a desired alternative early enough. Staff morale was at an all-time low at their organization, and the 15+ people in her unit were isolated by the more than 200 other colleagues in the organization. Had she not decided to leave on her own, Mrs. Toxin could have been allowed to stay on. And she would have caused more damage to people and the organization because her manager did not want to have to deal with her.
What do the three incidents have in common that are relevant to the proverb “a stitch in time saves nine?”
The Stitches That Could Have Saved Nine
The first incident with the ripped seam captures the original imagery for this proverb. Stitching on fabric is a commonplace thing that everybody understands because we all wear clothes. We are familiar with loose flaps of fabric and thread when the stitching gets undone. We know that rips don’t just disappear on their own; they grow bigger and more jagged if not fixed. We understand that an initial rip is a declaration of ‘what is’ and a warning of ‘what could be’ if left unaddressed. Hence, this proverb— “a stitch in time saves nine”— adopted a familiar part of daily living in 19th Century England to illustrate a mishmash of reality and possibilities that each of us can control.
The imagery of this proverb is embedded with the reminder that a rip that needs just a stitch is a reality. Fixed in time, that rip in need of just one seam can stay the only reality. Ignored, the reality unlocks the possibility that the one stitch will extend to four more. Or seven. Or nine. Or more than nine till the cloth becomes altered from rips and tears that can render it unusable.
Why then do we sometimes neglect the one stitch that can arrest the progression of a small rip to a bigger jagged tear?
Why did I not put in the 3 stitches that I saw D’s shirt needed that night?
“I did not feel like doing it then...”
“I was tired….”
“It was a minor problem, easy to fix later….”
“There was an alternative….”
Yet, a delay in adding 3 stitches weakened the pocket area and led to the need for 18 stitches to reattach one side of a ripped-out shirt pocket.
Why did the distinguished man not tell his doctors early enough about his back pain?
The pain he masked so well moved me too much to bother him with questions during our brief time together. But I long for him to get better, so I asked his friend. That’s how I found out the cause of his pain. That’s what has me lamenting: “Why, oh why, did this dear man not speak up early enough?”
My guess is that he came up with one or more of the following:
“I’m sure it’s nothing….”
“Everyone goes through back pain. It could just be because of how athletic I am…”
“Perhaps my pain threshold is too low and that’s what I need to work on…”
“Doctors are busy, why should I trouble them with this nothingburger …?”
“If it gets really bad, then I’ll let them know….”
Hence, a delay in alerting a doctor about a recurring back pain has resulted in the restriction of movement, activity, and impact.
It helps to know that he’s now receiving the best care. I pray and hope that he can be rid of his pain. I hope that it’s not too late for him. That he can still get to enjoy unrestricted mobility and pain-free days soon.
And what about the situation at my friend’s office?
Why did the manager/supervisor of Mrs. Toxin ignore the problems with her?
My friend said he told them that:
“I did not want any drama with her….”
“I didn’t want to have to deal with her besides the times we met at management meetings….”
“I felt guilty about ignoring your unit but I just wasn’t going to have anything to do with that woman…”
Hence, a delay in addressing the toxicity of one person destroyed the self-esteem and morale of those around her. It also cost the organization the loss of a competent staff and forced presenteeism by others, and the isolation of an entire unit of people.
A Stitch in Time Really Saves Nine
In an earlier post, I described the 5 benefits of embracing proverbs. This proverb — A stitch in time saves nine — checks all five boxes. You can use it for the benefits of:
Giving honest feedback on the common practice of procrastination. Feedback are the nutrients that help us grow well. They provide key information that we may never get to know about who we are, what we do or fail to do, and how we show up or fail to. Procrastination is a dangerous and costly practice. If you love someone or want to help them grow, speak up if you observe procrastination becoming a habit.
with brevity and clarity without any embellishment. Most procrastinators feel bad about procrastinating. They don’t want a lecture about it. Some would like to do something about it, if they know what to do. If you spot it, speak about it. This proverb gives you a way out. Use it. Start with only the proverb. It is succinct and clear enough to convey the full message, or serve as an icebreaker for questions that you can answer.
quickly without overthinking what you need to say. Don’t think of judgment or condemnation for the speaker. Don’t think of preaching. Speak to the situation and simply state the proverb with the seriousness it conveys and the wisdom it packs in. That’s why you’re learning about the proverb now so you can retrieve it later when you need to find the right words to say.
to illustrate to the dearly loved procrastinator the cons of delaying necessary action for whatever they don’t feel like doing it yet, want to avoid any drama from doing, or don’t want to bother others with. More importantly, this proverb is as much an illustration for you as it is for another. If you don’t procrastinate, this proverb illustrates why and sufficient explanation to curious minds. If you are a procrastinator, marinate that propensity in this proverb and analyze why you’d rather not save nine stitches when one stitch in time is all you need.
the crux of a problem that is overwhelming and seems complicated to untangle. Often, clarity precedes change. The right proverb clarifies and can spark conversations that will lead to change in a situation or behavior. For you. For others. Again, first hold the microscope to your actions and patterns.
Need To Put A Stitch In Somewhere?
Perhaps this proverb can help you figure out why you get your work done in time or do not?
Perhaps it can help uncover why there are more things to be done than you can handle. Could it be because past inaction created nine stitches when you could have been done with the one?
The need for one stitch comes in different forms.
A low tire …
A small leak in the roof …
A little miscommunication …
Ignoring a complaint .…
Neglecting a duty ….
Avoiding discomfort ….
Your heart may be what needs a stitch in time. Or it could be a situation at work where the buck stops with you. Perhaps it is a project around your house, or one on your bucket list. Maybe your lifestyle is built around one stitch in time and it’s a loved one who needs the reminder, not you. Even with that, a stitch of giving that person accountability or reminder in time can save nine in your relationship. The truth is that we all need frequent reminders on this proverb.
I just got permission from another dear friend to tell you about her “current shenanigan” (her descriptor, not mine). We were supposed to be on our way somewhere at this time. We confirmed departure time and route last night. She promised to put some air in her low tires first thing this morning because she was too tired last night. It’s now flat and she’s never changed one before so she’s waiting for help. We’ll have to try going again next week since we missed today’s. In the interim, she said to let you know that, “whatever, wherever, a stitch in time truly saves nine.”
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