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 needs to do
and demands nothing of others.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 79, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
This would be a good time for me to remind my readers that these daily chapters of the Tao Te Ching is not the way Lao Tzu originally intended his “Book of the Way and Virtue” to be read. Dividing his work up into 81 chapters was something which editors, coming along later, did. I am not knocking them for doing this. It certainly is helpful for me to have some way of breaking it down into bite-size morsels for us to think on. But, because Lao Tzu wrote it as one continuous flowing stream of words, some of the time, just a few times, really, I find the chapter divisions a bit random; and, I wonder if they shouldn’t have divided it a little bit differently.
The division between yesterday’s chapter and today’s is like that for me. You will remember yesterday’s chapter ended with Lao Tzu saying “True words seem paradoxical.” Because of the chapter division, it was easy to take those words to apply to what Lao Tzu wrote in yesterday’s chapter. And, I do think they applied to what he said about the Master being the people’s greatest help, because he has given up helping.
However, those chapter divisions play tricks on my thinking. If today’s chapter had begun with “True words seem paradoxical” I would gladly agree they fit just as well, here, too. So, just because I like being ornery some of the time, most of the time, actually, I am going to ask you to consider this “True Words Seem Paradoxical, Part Two.”
True words seem paradoxical. Failure is an opportunity. The paradox is in how we perceive things. It always is. Just like, in yesterday’s chapter, where we perceived the Master to be cold and indifferent, disinterested in the suffering and sorrow he found himself in the midst of. How can someone really be of any help, if they have given up helping? Lao Tzu would, of course, reply, it is only because he has given up helping, he can be the people’s greatest help.
But, that is just rehashing yesterday’s chapter; and, today’s chapter presents its own paradox. We don’t perceive failure as an opportunity. We perceive it as, well, failure; and that isn’t an option. At least, it isn’t an option we want to have to consider.
But we better consider it, because we do fail. And, more often than any of us would care to have to admit. So, the key to finding the truth in the paradox is to see things differently. To see any failure, as an opportunity.
Failure is an opportunity in two different ways. But, before we get into those two ways, failure is an opportunity, it would be best to clear out of the way one way it is not an opportunity.
We must not see failure as an opportunity to blame someone else. Darn it! But isn’t that the easiest way to treat failure as an opportunity? It would seem to be so. There is that word “seem” again. But, how we perceive things has got to change. For, if you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame. It is still January; perhaps it isn’t too late for New Year’s Resolutions. Resolved: I will not blame someone else for my own failures. Okay, that is settled. But, how then shall we find our opportunity in failure?
I said it is an opportunity in two different ways. The first one is for when you fail. Lao Tzu tells us the Master fulfills her own obligations and corrects her own mistakes. She does what she needs to do. Did you see the opportunity, here? You have failed. And, you aren’t going to blame someone else. Instead, you take this failure as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again, if need be. You still have obligations to fulfill. You have made mistakes, sure. But they are recent ones, and can be easily corrected, right? You weren’t slow to acknowledge your mistakes, were you? You do whatever you need to do. There is the opportunity. Don’t miss it. Take advantage of it. Prove yourself to be trustworthy, to yourself, and to all those around you.
The second way failure is an opportunity is when someone other than yourself fails. Perhaps it is someone who had obligated themselves to you. And they failed. Their mistakes loom large. Now, this is where it gets quite interesting. Because, if I was talking to them about their own obligations, I would direct them to my previous paragraph; and, tell them about the opportunity they had to correct their own mistakes, and fulfill their own obligations. But, this isn’t about them. It is about you. The kind of opportunity some other person’s failure is to you. What does the Master do when faced with this opportunity? She demands nothing of others. Wow!
Lao Tzu certainly knows how to set the bar high, doesn’t he? But, I guess that is what makes the Master the Master. When you fail, do whatever it takes to correct your own mistakes and fulfill your own obligations. When others fail you, demand nothing of them. Failure as an opportunity, true words seem paradoxical.