How Can We Be Content?

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time
inventing labor-saving devices.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing
and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We are winding things down on our latest journey through the Tao Te Ching. Tomorrow, we will have the last chapter. But don’t worry I will be starting the cycle all over again with chapter one on Monday. I point this out to new followers on tumblr because I always look forward to starting over again with fresh and new thoughts as we journey together through another cycle.

But I am getting ahead of myself. We have today’s chapter to talk about. It is another of my favorite chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Be forewarned. That usually means that I am going to have plenty to say. In today’s chapter, the topic is, how can we be content?

Lao Tzu begins the chapter by saying that if a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. That seems a simple enough prescription. Lao Tzu has had lots to say about how to govern wisely, throughout the Tao Te Ching. And, the point of philosophical Taoism is being content.

After I finished my tutoring today, I spent hours sitting outside in my backyard, enjoying the beautiful Autumn weather in the Ozarks. I certainly hope that wherever in the world all of you are living, you were able to enjoy your day as well.

I was sitting in the shade of a walnut tree, smoking my pipe, and thinking about today’s chapter. Thinking about what it means to be content. Wondering why we aren’t. Should we just blame the government for our lack of contentment. Or, is it possible, in fact, likely, that we would do much better learning how to be content in whatever state we are in. Regardless of whether your country is governed wisely.

Lao Tzu has had lots to say about contentment, throughout the Tao Te Ching. And every time he brings it up, he has insisted that it doesn’t have to depend on what our outward circumstances are. Contentment is an inward thing. That is why, as I was sitting out in my yard, I knew I was content.

There is a whole lot going on in our world with which we have every reason to be discontent. If there are any governments out there in the world which are governing wisely, I would sure like one of my followers to send me a message informing me of this magical place. I certainly don’t have any personal experience or knowledge of that. My own country hasn’t been governed wisely for as long as I have been living. And in looking back over history that predates me, this has been an ongoing thing for a very long time.

Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, doesn’t tell us how to be content when our country is not governed wisely. So, I am going to rely a lot on what he has said previously. Today, after his opening sentence, he paints an idyllic picture of what contentment looks like. But in looking at that picture, I can imagine that a lot of my readers are going to raise all sorts of objections to his idea of what contentment is.

Let’s take a brief look at this picture and see how we might overcome the objections. First off, Lao Tzu says that content inhabitants will enjoy the labor of their hands and won’t waste time inventing labor-saving devices. The immediate objection to this idea of contentment that comes to my mind is what is wrong with labor-saving devices? I for one, take full advantage of every labor-saving device that I can put to use. Anything that cuts down the labor of my hands, is okay by me. I happen to love leisure. Hence, I enjoyed being able to spend hours sitting out in the shade this afternoon. Quite frankly, I cannot even imagine being content without all the wonderful labor-saving inventions that have been devised by discontent people.

That is quite an objection. And I hope you noticed how I played with the words content and discontent in pointing out the objection. Discontentment can actually be a good thing. It can lead to innovation. And, innovation tends to be a good thing. But hold on there for just one moment. Yes, there is a positive side to discontentment. But there is a negative side as well. And what Lao Tzu is addressing is very different.

I think the problem we are having with this idyllic picture is that we are taking it far too literally. This might be Lao Tzu’s ideal. And maybe it isn’t yours. But what I really want you to consider is the possibility that your real problem with the picture is that you are not content. I wouldn’t be content with not having labor-saving devices. I wouldn’t be content to just sit at home all day and never travel. Of course you wouldn’t. You aren’t content. That is the point Lao Tzu is trying to make. If our country was governed wisely, we would be content. We might even be surprised to find out we were content to work with our hands. And not always be reaching for some labor-saving device. We might not be so restless that we couldn’t stand to be in our own home, our own back yards, for hours on end; for days, weeks, months, years, a life time.

Just think of being so discontent that you have an arsenal of weapons and can’t stand not to use them. Do you even enjoy food any longer? How about the time you spend with your families? Is that a nightmare, as well? I know, I didn’t have to ask.

I think it has been awhile since I have invoked the image of Tolkien’s Shire. But, for me, that is my idyllic picture of a life of contentment. Tolkien’s stories of hobbits are pure fiction. But that isn’t going to stop me from living my life of contentment in my own way. Good food. Good beer. The finest weed, north of the South-Farthing. Family, friends, and neighbors all enjoying each other’s company. And my own little garden that I get to work in with my own two hands. The roosters crowing. The dogs barking. That is the life. I can be content to die of old age having lived such a life of contentment.

And the nice thing about my own idyllic picture, is that it doesn’t really matter what the government is doing at all. Oh, I wish my country was being governed wisely. But it isn’t. And that isn’t likely to change in my lifetime. That could be depressing, if I choose to let it. But I don’t. I practice my own personal anarchism. I live my life as free from the State as I possibly can. I treat everyone I meet like I would like to be treated. I engage in voluntary and free trade with all; and have entangling alliances with no one. I obey laws that I would naturally be inclined to obey. And ignore laws that go against nature.

I am content. Oh, there are times when I am discontent; and that motivates me to change something. And, then I do. And, I am content again. I sat out in my yard for quite awhile today. Then, a friend came over and we visited for awhile. Once he left, I was content to sit down at my labor-saving device known as a computer and type up this blog post. Now that I am finshed, I am going to head back out into my back yard. There is still sunshine to enjoy. And after that a starry night.

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