Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?
If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never be truly fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 44, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we were talking about the value of effortless action. Not-doing doing. I even shared a little of how I practice it. I talked about my own decision to live life purposefully. To simplify and downsize. To see just how little it takes for me to live a happy and full life. Today, Lao Tzu begins with three rhetorical questions to get us thinking about the purpose of our own lives. Which is more important, fame or integrity? Which is more valuable, money or happiness? Which is more destructive, success or failure?
What Lao Tzu is doing here is asking us to take an honest assessment of our lives. Our purpose in living. What is important? What is more important? I don’t think you can’t have both fame and integrity. But that isn’t the question. The question is, which is more important? Because if you are looking to others for fulfillment, you will never be fulfilled.
Then there is the question of money and happiness. We tend to tie the two together some how. I will be happy if only I have enough money. But I never seem to have enough money, so I am not able, yet, to be happy. But, once I accumulate more money, once I have all the things I want that I need money to acquire, then I will be happy. Lao Tzu will have none of this. He states it pretty clearly. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself.
Who doesn’t want fulfillment? Who doesn’t want to be happy? I think we all do. We may all have different ways of going about our pursuit of it. And there is nothing at all wrong with that. We are individuals, after all. Vive la difference! But Lao Tzu wants us to understand that fulfillment and happiness are things to be found inside each of us, rather than outside of us.
We really get to the heart of the matter when we talk about success and failure. He has talked about that ladder before. You know the one. Where, instead of keeping our two feet standing on the solid ground of reality, we start going up and down rungs of the illusory ladder, encountering the phantoms of hope and fear. Now, the question isn’t about importance. Nor, is it about value. Now, it is all about destruction. Now, we ask the question that confronts the illusion with a huge dose of reality. The success we hope for and the failure we fear are both destructive. Which is more destructive? That is a pretty good question, and one that I am not going to attempt to answer.
They are both destructive. They don’t have to be equally destructive. One may be more destructive than the other. Or one may only seem to be more destructive than the other. For me, it is like choosing between the lesser of two evils in an election. You get evil either way. So why choose? You think that because one seems less evil or more evil than the other one, that it matters?
But let’s leave politics aside. I shouldn’t have even brought it up, since it isn’t what Lao Tzu is talking about. What he is talking about, is purposeful living. And, where not to look for fulfillment and happiness.
You won’t find it on that ladder.
Instead, you have to learn to be content with what you have. Be content. With what you already have.
Instead of fretting over the way things seem to be, rejoice in the way things are.
Once you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
That is what it all boils down to. The key to the art of living. Not nearly as hard as we make it out to be. Still, you have to make some choices. You need to choose to be content. You need to choose to rejoice. And you need to realize the truth. The truth is right there. It isn’t very far away. You carry it inside of you. Look inside yourself and you will see.