When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.
A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.
If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 61, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
How Long Our Shadow Is
Yesterday, we talked about the need to center your country in the Tao, in order that evil will have no power. Today, Lao Tzu explains exactly what a nation centered in the Tao means. This is a good conclusion to what we have been talking about the last several days. What should putting America first mean (since I have been advising President-Elect Trump), and what should putting your own country first mean (if you are in a position of leadership in another country in the world)? It is the end goal in the art of governing.
Forgive me for having a US-centric focus to my blog. I do think these things can be applied anywhere in the world. But, I make no apologies for living in the United States. And, I will continue to aim just criticism at the governance of my own country, since it does have such an effect (for good or evil) on the rest of the world.
For most of our history (US history), we have thought of ourselves as great, and a light to all other nations in our world. I won’t expend any time either justifying or tearing down that ideal. I just want to accept the ideal as being something we can, and even should, aspire to. It wasn’t just the theme of Trump’s campaign (and the campaign of every US president, ever, probably), it is the theme of today’s chapter.
What would it take to make America great again? What would set us apart, really? What would make us a shining city on a hill, a light to all nations in the world?
It certainly wouldn’t be building a great wall. Walls tend to prevent light from being seen. And why do we need a wall anyway? Why do we ever need to be defensive?
Okay, maybe I have asked enough questions, perhaps it is time to start looking at the answers.
Lao Tzu tells us that when a country obtains great power (as the United States most assuredly has) it becomes like the sea. And, this is the thing about a sea, all streams run downward into it. We all know why that is. It is because the sea is lower. It is its humility.
I would posit, that our greatness is, or was, due to our humility. And, if we are going to be great again, it is going to take even greater humility. If we have somehow lost our greatness (which was the theme of Trump’s campaign), it must be due to the reality that the more powerful we grew, the greater was our need for humility, but we forgot that. We got full of ourselves, and puffed up with pride. That is a recipe for disaster. I would be so bold as to suggest we are ripe for destruction. That is another kind of example for the rest of the world than I care for us to be.
But, the need for humility has certainly never been greater. And, ignoring this advice will very likely have dire consequences. There is a reason we fear. There is a reason why we are on the defensive and thinking about building really great walls. And, the reason is we haven’t been trusting the Tao (that is what humility means). We have exchanged the need for humility with a phantom menace, fear. That is why we feel the need to be on the defensive. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Great nations are like great leaders. They realize when they have made a mistake. And, having realized it, they admit it. And, having admitted it, they correct it. Let’s be real clear here, the mistake we have made is we have forsaken the need for humility. We haven’t been trusting the Tao. When I point out America’s faults I sometimes get accused of “Blaming America First”. I am declared “The Enemy”. And, I have been told I should pack my bags and leave. But great nations, and therefore, great leaders should consider those who point out their faults as their most benevolent teachers. And, think of their enemy as the shadow they, themselves, cast. If you have assumed the lowest place, like the sea has, you won’t cast a long shadow.
And, honestly, how long our shadow is, is really the whole problem.
If our nation were centered in the Tao, it would nourish its own people (putting America first), and not meddle in the affairs of others. That would certainly shorten our shadow. There would be no more darkness. There would be only light. A light to all nations in the world.