Should We Be Afraid of Dying?

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 74, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Should We Be Afraid of Dying?

As much as I love Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, there are times where I think he doesn’t quite get the nuance of what Lao Tzu is saying. I have noticed this, more and more, as I have acquainted myself with other translations my followers have brought to my attention. Last year, I had a follower point me to Robert Brookes’ excellent interpretation. And, you probably noticed, I began to refer to it again and again. This year, I had a different follower introduce me to Red Pine’s translation. I can’t begin to measure the impact it has had on my understanding. Between Red Pine’s more literal reliance on the ancient Chinese text, and the commentary by sages down through the centuries, it has become invaluable to me. While I don’t always quote from either of those works, I do always read through them, and think about what they have to say about the particular chapter on which I am working. In the last few chapters, I have noticed a marked difference between Stephen Mitchell’s and the other two. That difference has become the most profound, in today’s chapter.

In reading through today’s chapter, it seems to me like Stephen Mitchell is advocating not fearing death. After all, if you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve. And, that is true, in a manner of speaking. However, I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu is actually meaning to say in this chapter.

Let’s just contrast the three interpretations of that one line. Stephen Mitchell says, “If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.” Robert Brookes says, “If the people do not fear death, how can the threat of death frighten them?” And, Red Pine says, “If people no longer fear death what good is threatening to kill them”.

I am going to be so bold as to offer my own interpretation, which I came up with after reading the three others. After reading yesterday’s chapter, where Lao Tzu was comparing daring to act with death, and daring not to act with life, having no fear of death, or dying, should best be understood as emboldening you to dare to act, where a fear of dying would restrain you. In other words, we should fear death. We don’t, which is why we dare to act. But, oh how things would be better for us, if we dared not to act.

The shortened version would be, “If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you won’t dare to do.” That is close to what Stephen Mitchell says. But his choice of the phrase “nothing you can’t achieve”, is far too positive in its connotations.

Now, let me paraphrase the whole chapter.

All things change. We need to realize this. And, we need to restrain ourselves from acting: from intervening, from interfering, from trying to control. Let change happen. Trying to control the future is like trying to take the place of a master carpenter. You don’t fear death, so you probably don’t fear cutting your hand, either. But, you should.

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