Some Things Are Simply Bad

“Those who tiptoe don’t stand
those who stride don’t walk
those who consider themselves don’t appear
those who display themselves don’t shine
those who flatter themselves achieve nothing
those who parade themselves don’t lead
travelers have a saying
too much food and a tiring pace
some things are simply bad
those who possess the Way thus shun them”

(Taoteching, verse 24, translation by Red Pine)

TE CH’ING says, “People raise themselves up on their tiptoes to see over the heads of others, but they cannot stand like this for long. People take longer strides to stay in front of others, but they cannot walk like this very far. Neither of these is natural.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To tiptoe is to lift the heels in order to increase one’s height. To stride is to extend the feet in order to increase one’s pace. A person can do this for a while but not for long. Likewise, those who consider themselves don’t appear for long. Those who display themselves don’t shine for long. Those who flatter themselves don’t succeed for long. And those who parade themselves don’t lead for long.”

SU CH’E says, “Anyone can stand or walk. But if those who are not content with standing tiptoe to extend their height or those who are not content with walking stride to increase their speed, their stance and their pace are sure to suffer. It’s the same with those who consider themselves, or display themselves, or flatter themselves, or parade themselves. It’s like eating or drinking. As soon as you’re full, stop. Overeating will make you ill. Or it’s like manual work. As soon as you’re done, quit. Overwork will only exhaust you.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Selfless and free of desire is the mind of the sage. Conniving and clever is the mind of the common person. Observing themselves, displaying themselves, flattering themselves, and parading themselves, they hasten their end, like someone who eats too much.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Those who cultivate the Tao yet still think about themselves are like people who overeat or overwork. Food should satisfy the hunger. Work should suit the task. Those who keep to the Way do only what is natural.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Why should Taoists avoid things? Doesn’t the Tao dwell in what others avoid? [see verse 8]. Taoists don’t avoid what others hate, namely humility and weakness. They only avoid what others fight over, namely flattery and ostentation. Hence, they avoid some things and not others. But they never fight.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “Who follows the Way lives long. Who loses the Way dies early. This is the unbiased law of Heaven. It doesn’t depend on offerings or prayers.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who straddle two sides are unsure of the Way.” [In line two, k’ua (stride) can also mean “straddle”].

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu says “Some things are simply bad / those who possess the Way thus shun them.” This verse is all about distinguishing between doing what is natural (without effort) and doing what requires effort, what we can’t do for long, what is artificial. He has spent quite a bit of time talking about good and bad before, and when he has done so, he has pretty much scolded us for making these distinctions. So, what gives? How is it okay, now, to say some things are simply bad, and something we would be wise to avoid?

The distinction Lao-tzu is making, here, and rightly so, is a distinction between the subjective and the objective. When he has scolded us before about making distinctions, he was talking about subjective ones. Ones that change. Today’s verse concerns itself with the objective. It is concerned with things that never change. Ah, you might say, but sometimes it is okay to stand on tiptoe, to stride or straddle. Isn’t that so? Isn’t that subject to change?

If we are thinking that way, we are missing Lao-tzu’s point. What doesn’t change is that you can’t tiptoe, or stride or straddle, for long. It just isn’t natural. It wasn’t natural from the beginning, and it never will be. It is like the analogy of eating too much food or working at a tiring pace. Obviously, we can do those things. And when we do, to excess, we suffer.

Whenever we strive too hard, and exert too much effort, to do anything, we ultimately achieve nothing. The things we are trying to achieve come to naught. This, Lao-tzu has been teaching, is simply the Way things are. We go through our lives frustrated because instead of going with the flow, we continually swim against the current, wearing ourselves out. The Way is effortless, and those who follow the Way do so, effortlessly.

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