I Am an Old Man and Have Known a Great Many Troubles, But Most of Them Never Happened

Mark Twain? Thomas Jefferson? Martin Farquhar Tupper? Seneca? Winston Churchill? James A. Garfield? Thomas Dixon? Michel de Montaigne? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Everyone faces difficulties in life; however, the worry-filled anticipation of possible setbacks pointlessly magnifies dangers. A comical statement illuminating this theme has been attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill:

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

I hope you will be willing to explore this saying. An upbeat perspective suggests that great discoveries await.

Quote Investigator: A version of this quip was ascribed to Mark Twain in a Singapore newspaper in 1923, but Twain died in 1910; hence, this evidence is quite weak. Winston Churchill employed an instance of the saying in 1924, but he attributed the words to an anonymous “old man”. Details for these citations are given further below.

The earliest strong match located by QI was published in 1881. The humorous remark was spoken by President-elect James A. Garfield who was discussing the large number of tasks he would be facing as President. The statement was reported in the Cleveland Leader of Cleveland, Ohio, and the phrasing indicated that Garfield was referencing a saying that was already in circulation: 1

I remember the old man who said he had had a great many troubles in his life, but the worst of them never happened.

Interesting ideational precursors of this expression were used by Seneca the Younger, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Farquhar Tupper.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order which trace the evolution of the sentiment and the saying.

Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger lived between 4 BCE and 65 CE. His letter number 98 to Lucilius contained the following in Latin which has been translated into English. There was no humor in this didactic statement, but it voiced part of the thought underlying the later saying: 2 3

There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!
Seneca—Epistolae Ad Lucilium. XCVIII.

In 1816 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams that discussed the topic of unfounded apprehensions. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 4

You ask, if I would agree to live my seventy or rather seventy-three years over again? To which I say, yea. I think with you, that it is a good world on the whole; that it has been framed on a principle of benevolence, and more pleasure than pain dealt out to us.

There are, indeed, (who might say nay) gloomy and hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, and despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen. To these I say, how much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened! My temperament is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern.

In 1825 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter of guidance and advice to the son of a friend. He included a list of ten canons such as: “Never spend your money before you have it”. The eighth canon was the following: 5

A Decalogue of Canons for observation in practical life.
Number 8: How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.

In the 1830s the influential English writer and poet Martin Farquhar Tupper released “Proverbial Philosophy”, a popular work published in many editions during the ensuing decades. Here are the first four lines of the work titled “Of Anticipation”: 6

Thou hast seen many sorrows, travel-stained pilgrim of the world,
But that which hath vexed thee most, hath been the looking for evil;
And though calamities have crossed thee, and misery been heaped on thy head,
Yet ills that never happened, have chiefly made thee wretched.

In 1854 the “Friends’ Intelligencer” published an article titled “Strive To Be Cheerful” which recalled the verses of Tupper, but the author made an interesting modification. The word “sorrows” was replaced by “troubles”. The modern saying connected to Twain and Churchill has typically employed the word “troubles”: 7

There is a species of croakers, and their name is legion, who delight in anticipating future evils, and who pass a good share of their time in prognostications of woe and misery. This class of people forcibly remind us of Tupper’s truthful words: “Thou hast seen many troubles, travel-stained pilgrim of the world, but that which hath vexed thee most, hath been the looking for evil. And though calamities have crossed thee, and misery been heaped upon thy head, yet ills, that never happened, have chiefly made thee wretched.”

In 1881 President-elect James A. Garfield used an instance of the saying as noted near the beginning of this article. Garfield used the phrase “the worst of them” instead of “most of them”: 8

I remember the old man who said he had had a great many troubles in his life, but the worst of them never happened.

In 1883 the novel “An American Four-in-Hand in Britain” included an instance of the expression using the phrase “nine-tenths of them”: 9

A good story was told of an old man who had endured many of the ills of life in his long journey. His friends upon one occasion, more trying than usual, condoled with him, saying that he really had more troubles than other men. “Yes, my friends, that is too true. I have been surrounded by troubles all my life long, but there is a curious thing about them—nine-tenths of them never happened.”

In May 1883 “The Publishers’ Weekly” periodical reprinted a section of the book that included the quip. 10

Other fractions have been substituted into the saying; for example, in 1884 the novel “Dearly Bought” presented a death bed remark in which half of the troubles never happened: 11

“Yes. The past cannot be changed, and for the present and future remember the story of the man who said on his death bed that he had had a great deal of trouble in his life, but that half of it never happened. Do not,” smiling at Doris and taking her hand with unusual cordiality, “do any more unavailing penance.”

A passage in an 1888 book about bereavement used the word “pilgrimage” harking back to the words of Tupper while mimicking the 1883 statement: 12

On one occasion, when some friends were condoling with an old man regarding the many troubles of his long and chequered pilgrimage, he remarked, “What you say is too true. I have been surrounded with troubles all my life long; but there is a curious thing about them—nine-tenths of them never happened!”

In 1892 a remembrance of Sir Daniel Wilson, President of University College, Toronto, was published in a publication of the American Antiquarian Society. Wilson reportedly used the expression, but he had obtained it form a friend: 13

He was fond of applying to himself the words which had fallen from the mouth of a friend: “Yes, I have had a great deal of trouble,—but most of it never happened!”

In 1896 the New York Observer printed a death bed remark similar to the modern statement: 14

We have all imagined a great deal more than we have suffered. “My sons,” remarked an old man on his death bed, “I have had a great deal of trouble in my life, but most of it never happened.”

Statements attributed to Tupper continued to circulate. Here is a concise statement that expressed Tupper’s viewpoint but used a phrasing that differed from the original: 15

With too many of us it is just fret, fret, fret all the time; not over actual, but just anticipated troubles; worrying over imaginary evils. As Tupper says: “It is ills that never happened that have mostly made men miserable.”

In 1903 Thomas Dixon Jr. published the novel “The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia”. He described a home with an opulent library that featured a distinctive motto carved in wood: 16

Beside the chimney windows opened with entrancing views of the Great South Bay and the distant beaches of Fire Island. Across the huge oak mantel he had carved the sentence:

“I AM AN OLD MAN NOW; I’VE HAD LOTS OF TROUBLE, AND MOST OF IT NEVER HAPPENED.”

In the following years the saying was credited to Dixon on multiple occasions. However, in 1904 Dixon’s words were echoed in an essay, but he was not specifically acknowledged: 17

The other day I read of a recluse who had carved on the oak mantelpiece of his library this sentence: “I am an old man now: I’ve had lots of trouble, and most of it never happened.”

There is strangeness, yet more truth than strangeness, in that confession. We are not told that all the trouble never happened, but that most of it never happened.

In 1908 the London humor magazine “Punch” described the inaugural address of the fictitious Lord Hivebury, the new Lord Rector of St. Bunker’s University: 18

Many, if not most, of our troubles we made for ourselves. In the first place, many of them were purely imaginary. “I am an old man,” said Colonel Goodwin, “and have had many troubles; most of them never happened.” That was the way to look at it. Don’t believe in bad luck.

In 1909 the “Railroad Age Gazette” ascribed the saying to a major humorist of the 1800s: 19

Josh Billings once observed that he had had a great deal of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.

Also in 1909 a thematically related statement was attributed to Mark Twain: 20

Mark Twain once said that “the trouble with old men is they remember so many things that ain’t so,” but this book of war reminiscences is different from most of Twain’s reminiscences.

In 1923 an article in “The Singapore Free Press” newspaper asserted that Mark Twain wrote an instance of the expression using the word “sorrows” instead of “troubles” in an autograph album. QI has not yet located any collaborative data for this story which was printed thirteen years after the death of Twain: 21

Asked to contribute a confession to a friend’s autograph album, Mark Twain wrote: “I have known many sorrows, most of which never happened.” Worries are sorrows which don’t happen, says the Rev. R. J. Campbell, D. D. No one can escape sorrow, but everyone can escape worry.

Intriguingly, “sorrows” was the word used by the poet Martin Farquhar Tupper in the widely disseminated book “Proverbial Philosophy”.

In 1924 Winston Churchill used the expression in an article in “Pall Mall” which was reprinted in the 1932 collection “Amid These Storms: Thoughts and Adventures”. However, Churchill credited the words to an anonymous “old man”: 22 23

Everyone remembers the remark of the old man at the point of death: that his life had been full of troubles most of which had never happened.

In 1926 the “Business Women’s Herald” of Oakland, California ascribed an instance of the saying with the word “trouble” to Twain: 24

Mark Twain said he had had a lot of trouble in his life but most of it never happened. And we think we have had a lot of depression in business, but much of it could be attributed to causes within our own business activity or lack of it.

In 1948 the popular self-help author Dale Carnegie ascribed an instance of the remark to the influential French writer Michel de Montaigne. QI has not yet located any substantive support for this attribution: 25

Even the great French philosopher, Montaigne, made that mistake. “My life,” he said, “has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” So has mine—so has yours.

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that this saying evolved over many years. It is possible that someone familiar with the serious verses by Martin Farquhar Tupper decided to construct a light-hearted comical statement expressing a similar idea using a shared vocabulary.

There is no substantive evidence currently that Mark Twain wrote or spoke this statement. Winston Churchill did write a version but he did not claim coinage. Thomas Dixon Jr. did employ an instance in 1903, but the saying was already well-established before that time.

(Great thanks to Doug Szper who inquired about this saying via email, and special thanks to Richard who asked at the Freakonomics website. Many thanks to top researcher Ken Hirsch who located the 1883 citation. Thanks to the Yale Book of Quotations which included the Thomas Jefferson citation and other pertinent information.)

Update History: On September 14, 2014 the 1948 citation for Montaigne was added. On May 31, 2015 the 1909 citation in “A Drum’s Story: And Other Tales” was added.

Notes:

  1. 1881 February 19, Cleveland Leader, The Next President: Visited Yesterday by the Now Popular Governor Murray, Article section header: I Have Got Into A Way, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1896, The Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations, Compiled by J. K. Hoyt (Jehiel Keeler Hoyt), Section: Misfortune, Quote Page 727, Column 1, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1976, Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Volume 29, Fasc. 3, Seneca’s 98th Letter and the ‘Praemeditatio futuri mali’ by C. E. Manning, Quote Page 302, Published by BRILL. (Latin text is given on page 302)(JSTOR) link
  4. 1829, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson; Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies: From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Volume IV, Letter dated April 8, 1816 from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Start Page 271, Quote Page 271, Published by F. Carr and Co., Charlottesville, Virginia. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1829, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson; Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies: From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Volume IV, Letter dated February 21, 1825 from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Smith, Start Page 413, Quote Page 413 and 414, Published by F. Carr and Co., Charlottesville, Virginia. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1839, “Proverbial Philosophy: A Book of Thoughts and Arguments, Originally Treated” by Martin Farquhar Tupper, (Third edition), Of Anticipation, Quote Page 27, Joseph Rickerby, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1854 (Third Month) (Day 4), Friends’ Intelligencer, Edited by An Association of Friends, Volume 10, Strive To Be Cheerful, Quote Page 795, Published by William W. Moore, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view; currently not searchable) link
  8. 1881 February 19, Cleveland Leader, The Next President: Visited Yesterday by the Now Popular Governor Murray, Article section header: I Have Got Into A Way, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1883, An American Four-in-Hand in Britain by Andrew Carnegie, Quote Page 312 and 313, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1883 May 26, The Publishers’ Weekly, Volume 23, Section: Summer Reading, (Book Excerpt: “Roses on our Way” from “An American Four-in-Hand” published by Scribner), Quote Page 625, F. Leypoldt Publisher, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  11. 1884, Dearly Bought by Clara Louise Burnham, Quote Page 196, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  12. 1888, The Bow in the Cloud: Or, Words of Comfort for Those in Bereavement, Sickness, Sorrow, and the Varied Trials of Life, Edited by J. Sanderson (Joseph Sanderson), Quote Page 319, Published by E. B. Treat, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  13. 1893, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting Held October 1892, Report of the Council, Start Page 181, Quote Page 183, Published by the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  14. 1896 December 3, New York Observer (New York Observer and Chronicle), Volume 74, Issue 49, Notes, Start Page 861, Quote Page 862, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  15. 1898 December 29, New York Observer, How to Have ‘A Happy New Year’, Start Page 851, Quote Page 852, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  16. 1903, The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia by Thomas Dixon, Jr., Quote Page 31, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  17. 1904, Letters from a Silent Study by John Oliver Hobbes, Section: On Vexations: Quote Page 155, Sidney Appleton, London. (Google Books full view) link
  18. 1908 January 29, Punch, Volume 134, Lord Hivebury Speaks Out, Quote Page 86, Published at the Office of Punch, London. (Google Books full view) link
  19. 1909 April 30, Railroad Age Gazette, Volume 46, Number 18, Technical Journalism by Ray Morris, Start Page 939, Quote Page 942, Published by The Railroad Gazette. Inc., New York. (HathiTrust full view) link link
  20. 1909, A Drum’s Story: And Other Tales by Delavan S. Miller, (Advertising material for the author’s previous book: What Henry Haynie Has to Say in the Boston Times of D. S. Millers “Drum Taps in Dixie”), Star Page 231, Quote Page 231, Hungerford-Holbrook Company, Watertown, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  21. 1923 October 27, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, Worry, Quote Page 11, Column 6, Singapore. (Singapore Pages NewspaperSG Database at newspapers.nl.sg)
  22. 1972, Amid These Storms: Thoughts and Adventures by Winston Churchill, ‘Plugstreet’, Start Page 113, Quote Page 113, (Reprint of 1932 edition from Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York), Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified on paper)
  23. 2008, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, Edited by Richard Langworth, Page 531, PublicAffairs, New York. (First appearance is listed as March 1924, Pall Mall, “Plugstreet”) (Google Books Preview)
  24. 1926 January 25, Business Women’s Herald, Official Publication of the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Oakland, California, Volume 3, Number 9, Untitled short article, Unnumbered Page (Last Page, Page 8), Column 3, Oakland, California. (Internet Archive full view) link
  25. 1948, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, Chapter 1: Live in “Day-tight Compartments”, Quote Page 9, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper; ninth printing)