Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.
Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she need to do
and demands nothing of others.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 79, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Lao Tzu closed yesterday’s chapter with the line, “True words seem paradoxical.” And we easily spotted the truth in the paradox, yesterday. The soft overcomes the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. If you want to be the people’s greatest help, give up trying to help them.
But, there is something of which it is good to be aware. Lao Tzu didn’t divide his teachings into chapters. The chapters were a later addition; much like the addition of chapters and verses to the Bible. Editors thought it would be helpful to divide even this short work into chapters. While I find it helpful to take a “chapter” a day, I also am mindful that there is a continuity that flows through the Tao Te Ching, from beginning to end. Just because one chapter closes, the thoughts being conveyed don’t end. The truth to be found in paradox is also here, in today’s “chapter.”
So it is that you will most often find me referring to yesterday’s chapter when I begin talking about the present one. Context is obviously important. These aren’t separate islands not connected to the whole. And that leads me to the other thing about today’s chapter, which is very much a continuation of what Lao Tzu has been talking about in the last few chapters. You aren’t going to find the words soft and gentle, or hard and rigid in today’s chapter; but that is still what Lao Tzu is talking about when he says, “Failure is an opportunity.”
Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about the Master being like water, serene, even in the midst of sorrow. Today, he is talking about contractual obligations. From ancient times, humans have relied on contracts to conduct business with each other. There were two sides to every contract between two parties. The side dealing with the obligations of one party, and the side dealing with the obligations of the other party.
When Lao Tzu tells us to see failure as an opportunity, he is talking about how we should act with regard to both sides of the contract. We’ll take these sides, one at a time.
First, there is your side of the contract. What are you obligated to do? If you have entered into a contractual obligation, you are bound to fulfill your own obligations. No excuses. What if you fail? See it as an opportunity. Not an opportunity to start pointing the finger of blame at others. Don’t start doing that; once that starts, there is no end to the blame. But your failure doesn’t have to be the final word. And it shouldn’t be. Now you have the opportunity to correct your own mistakes. To do whatever needs to be done; so that your obligations can be fulfilled. That seems straightforward and reasonable enough. It would have been quite shocking to see Lao Tzu recommending we try to weasel out of our obligations.
But then there is the other side of the contract. The other party’s. What about their obligations? What happens when they fail? Are we going to be hard and rigid, now? Or, are we going to be soft and gentle? Obviously, if the other party was you, you would be setting out to correct your own mistakes, and doing whatever needs to be done to fulfill your side of the contract. But you aren’t the other party. And their failure is an opportunity for you of a whole different sort.
What are you going to do? How are you going to act? If you respond to the hard and rigid, the contract, by being hard and inflexible, you just missed out on a wonderful opportunity. Instead, Lao Tzu teaches: Be soft and yielding. Demand nothing of the other party.
Demand nothing of the other party? But, but they owe me! How dare they! You mean to tell me that I can’t weasel out of my own obligations; but, I am just supposed to roll over and let them weasel out of theirs?
I know we are almost all the way through the Tao Te Ching (only two chapters left, until I start it back up again with chapter one in three days), but let’s not forget what Lao Tzu has been teaching us all along. We need to give up our need to control. We need to let go of all desires. We need to be simple in our thoughts and actions, patient toward friends and enemies, and compassionate toward ourselves. We need to be like water. And, we need to trust the Tao. As it acts in the world, the Tao is like the bending of a bow. Excess and deficiency always get leveled out. Will you let the Tao balance the ledger? The Master is good to both those who are good and those who are not. That is true goodness. The Master trusts both those who are trustworthy and those who are not. That is true trust.
True words seem paradoxical. But are they, really? Failure is an opportunity. An opportunity for you to prove the Tao is alive and well in you.