Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success
is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope
is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self,
then you can care for all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 13, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Back in chapter eight, Lao Tzu offered us six different ways to be in harmony with the way things are. He called this harmony, the supreme good. The first way was in how we live. He said to live close to the ground. Today’s chapter, I think, expands on this. Today’s chapter, perhaps more than any other, exposes how we have been programmed to live out of harmony with the Tao.
Today, Lao Tzu points at the proverbial ladder. A ladder, we like to call the ladder of success. But a ladder that leads us both up and down. There is the same potential for failure as there is success. What if we fail? Oh, but what if we succeed? We have been programmed to trust that ladder. That is where our destiny lies. We are told from early in our lives, some earlier than others, that we need to get on that ladder and start climbing. Some are dismayed when they think that ladder has some missing rungs. Some, seem to be able to start up higher, above any missing rungs. But the ladder still stretches up high above the Earth. Ending somewhere in the clouds, far above the ground. The danger, we are told, is in failure. But, Lao Tzu tells us that success is as dangerous as failure. What does he mean? He tells us that the only way to keep our balance is to remain with both our feet on the ground. When we are positioned on the ladder, every step we take, whether up or down, is a shaky one.
I have a confession to make. I have never cared for ladders. I don’t like climbing them; because with each step, I know I am moving away from the ground. And, I know that my position on the ladder is only temporary. I am just needing to climb up to the roof to do some cleaning of gutters; or some such thing, I can’t reach from the ground. But I also know that once that work is done, I will need to climb back down. And I really don’t like that climb back down. Not until I have my feet back on the ground, am I able to breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t like ladders.
But what is even more scary, more dangerous, is living life on a ladder. Like that ladder, Lao Tzu is speaking of. We begin to lose our sense of balance. And if there is one thing that philosophical Taoism teaches us, it is the importance of balance. Yin and yang have this way of always balancing out. That means success and failure, too. The danger of the ladder is that what goes up, will most assuredly come back down.
Intertwined in our programming on how to succeed, or fail, is hope and fear. I found it amazing, after I first read this chapter, a few years ago, and I started to notice how much hope and fear were a part of my every day vocabulary. They had been programmed into me from early, very early in my life. I try to steer clear of things that I fear. Like ladders. Like needles. And, do I really have to admit this? I have been known to leave a room when a scary movie is getting a bit too scary for me. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. Why don’t I like being scared? It is just a movie. It isn’t real. What am I afraid of? What do I fear?
But I like hope. I love it. I am actually the kind of person that will see the silver lining behind every cloud. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be on the lookout for lightning there, too. Still, hope has been something that I have always been able to hold onto. Ever hopeful. That is me.
But then Lao Tzu comes along and throws a monkey wrench in my works. My programming gets a jolt. Hope is as hollow as fear? Oh, the cognitive dissonance. What does he mean? It was easy enough to accept that my fears were pretty much not grounded in reality; and just plain silly, to boot. But hope? Don’t take my hope away. What will I have left?
But Lao Tzu is unmoved by my pleas. Both hope and fear are phantoms. They aren’t real. Hope is just as unreal as my silly fear of scary movies. The reason these twin phantoms arise is because I am thinking of myself as self. As separate. As alone. But, if I don’t see myself as self, as separate, as alone, what have I to fear?
Then again, what do I have to hope for? What good is that ladder, anyway? If I am not thinking of my self. What exactly is its purpose? Stay away from the ladder, Chuck. No, don’t fear it. But don’t hope in it either. Both are not helpful.
See the world as your self. Realize your connectedness with the whole. Your unity. Your oneness with everything and everyone. This isn’t sacrificing self to the world. It is realizing your self and the world are one. That isn’t self-sacrificing. It raises self to a whole new level of awareness and importance. When you realize you are the world, then your every act is an act of caring, of intentional empathy. Fear and hope vanish, without a trace. In their place, there isn’t emptiness. There is faith. And, there is love. Faith in the way things are. And love for every thing and every one. When you have faith in the way things are, and love the world as you love your self, then you can and will truly care for all things.