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 machines.
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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We are nearing the end of another cycle through the eighty-one chapters of the Tao Te Ching. I just wanted to let all of you know how very much I appreciate you following along with me as we make our way through it, one day at a time. There is little that cheers me more than getting a message from one of you telling me how much you enjoy it. Thanks!
Today, Lao Tzu addresses the importance of governing a country wisely. That right there results in its inhabitants being content. Being content is a good thing. Sometimes I think contentment gets a bad rap. So, I will want to spend a little time on the problem of contentment today.
First, I don’t know how things are in your particular country. I know there does seem to be a whole lot of discontent out there in the world today. Perhaps it has always been this way. Maybe, because of the power of the internet, it just seems more widespread. But, I don’t think the internet is exaggerating the discontent.
The point of my blog post today is to discuss whether contentment is necessarily good, and discontent is necessarily bad.
But before I do that, I do want to discuss the idyllic picture that Lao Tzu paints for us of a country whose inhabitants are content.
Every time that I read through this chapter, I can’t help but think that this is something that J.R.R. Tolkien could have written. This idyllic picture does seem a pretty accurate picture of life in the Shire. And I must admit, I would be quite content living as a hobbit in the Shire. A garden, a pipe, and beer (that, yes, Pippen, comes in pints), would suit me just fine. I am a very simple man with very simple tastes. I would love living in the Shire.
But, I know that isn’t everybody’s idyllic picture. And that is just fine. Paint your own idyllic picture. Go ahead, I can wait….
Okay, now that you have your own idyllic picture in mind. Let me ask you a question. Why aren’t you living that way right now? Because I am. Or at least as close to it as I can. I am a couple feet too tall to be a hobbit. But I have my garden. And I have my pipe. And I drink my beer a pint at a time, thank you very much.
And that brings me to the problem of contentment. And whether contentment is necessarily good, and discontent is necessarily bad.
Lao Tzu certainly suggests being content is a good thing. But like I said before, contentment gets a bad rap sometimes; so we really need to talk about what true contentment means.
The reason I think that contentment gets a bad rap sometimes is because sometimes contentment is defined as complacency. Both contentment and complacency mean self-satisfaction. But complacency has an extra added unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. Whereas contentment is being aware of exactly the way things are, and being content with that. Maybe when we are not being governed wisely, our rulers would like for us to be complacent. But how could we be content when things are not what they should be?
Contentment is awareness. Discontentment is awareness as well. Perhaps, you can see where I am going with this. I want to be aware and content. When I am discontented, it is because I am aware and I can’t be deceived into being complacent.
Which brings me to one of the harder things for me to try to explain about philosophical Taoism. Philosophical Taoism teaches that the way things are is the way things are. And the words contentment and discontentment, and even complacency seem appropriate anytime I read that phrase. What exactly does Lao Tzu mean when he says that the way things are is the way things are?
Does he mean that we shouldn’t be discontent? Is philosophical Taoism promoting a certain level of complacency?
When it seems that way, I am mistaking an illusion for reality. And even given all the metaphors that Lao Tzu uses to try to explain the Tao to us, he is always describing for us what is actually very real. The way things are is the way things are, speaks of reality. What is real. When we are enjoined to be content with the way things are, he is talking about being aware of the reality behind the illusion.
Hopefully that made as much sense as I intended for it to mean. We can really never be content with what is only an illusion. Oh, we might suffer from complacency. I did for a good many years. And I think plenty still do. But it is impossible to truly be content with that.
But when we become aware of the illusion, then discontentment is a very appropriate response. It is either that, or reburying our heads in the sand.
And once we have discovered what is real. When we really are aware of it. Then we can be content. Because all illusions are swept away. Only then can we be truly content that the way things are is the way things are.
I know I have been overlong with my post today, and I apologize for that. But I only have this one more thing to add. Do you remember when I asked you why aren’t you living out your idyllic picture now? Well, why aren’t you? Why isn’t that your reality? Sweep away the illusions; and live your life the way you want. Now. Know the true contentment you were born to know.