Regret Comes Too Late

“Which is more vital
fame or health
which is more precious
health or wealth
which is more harmful
loss or gain
the deeper the love
the higher the cost
the bigger the treasure
the greater the loss
who knows contentment
thus suffers no shame
and who knows restraint
encounters no trouble
while enjoying a long life”

(Taoteching, verse 44, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG MAO-TS’AI says, “What the world calls fame is something external. And yet people abandon their bodies to fight for it. What the world calls wealth is unpredictable. And yet people sacrifice their bodies to possess it. How can they know what is vital or precious? Even if they succeed, it’s at the cost of their health.”

SSU-MA KUANG says, “Which is more harmful: to gain wealth and fame and lose one’s health or to gain one’s health and lose wealth and fame?”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heroes seek fame and merchants seek wealth, even to the point of giving up their lives. The first love fame because they want to glorify themselves. But the more they love fame, the more they lose what they would really glorify. Hence, the cost is high. The second amass wealth because they want to enrich themselves. But the more wealth they amass, the more they harm what they would truly enrich. Hence, the loss is great. Meanwhile, those who cultivate Virtue know the most vital thing is within themselves. Thus, they seek no fame and suffer no disgrace. They know the most precious things is within themselves. Thus, they seek no wealth and encounter no trouble. Hence, they live long.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If we love something, the more we love it, the more it costs us. If we treasure something, the more we treasure it, the more it exhausts us. A little of either results in shame. A lot results in ruin. And regret comes too late. People who are wise are not like this. They know that they have everything they need within themselves. Hence, they do not seek anything outside themselves. Thus, those who would shame them find nothing to shame. They know their own limit, and their limit is the Tao. Hence, they don’t act unless it is according to the Tao. Thus, those who would trouble them find nothing to trouble. Hence, they survive, and surviving, live long.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Excessive sensual desire exhausts our spirit. Excessive material desire brings us misfortune. The living keep their treasures in storerooms. The dead keep their treasures in graves. The living worry about thieves. The dead worry about grave robbers. Those who know contentment find happiness and wealth within themselves and don’t exhaust their spirit. If they should govern a country, they don’t trouble their people. Thus, they are able to live long.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “Long ago Chih Po-ch’iao attacked and defeated Fan Chung-hsing. He also attacked the leaders of the states of Han and Wei and occupied parts of their territories. Still, he felt this wasn’t enough, so he raised another army and attacked the state of Yueh. But Han and Wei counterattacked, and Chih’s army was defeated near Chinyang, and he was killed east of Kaoliang. His skull became a drinking bowl, his kingdom was divided among the victors, and he was ridiculed by the world. This is what happens when you don’t know when to stop.”

Another of my favorite verses, I had a tough time choosing between two different titles for it. Along with the title I chose, I considered, “This Is What Happens When You Don’t Know When to Stop.” Lao-tzu begins with three rhetorical questions, and the first two, at least, seem so easily answered (I guess that would be what makes them rhetorical); but, don’t be fooled by how easy you may think they are to answer.

Of course we know health is more vital than fame, that health is more precious than wealth, right?

Do we? I don’t know about you, but I happened to live a good number of my years in which what I said I believed, and what I was actually doing in practice, didn’t exactly line up. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

And, regret comes too late. I have talked before about a little book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament, being one of my favorite ones. I think it is just twelve chapters long, you ought to read it. In it, “the Preacher” tells about getting to the end of his life and discovering it was all “vanity.” Even when I was a young man, I knew I didn’t want that to be my fate. Though I didn’t quite know how to avoid his fate. Later, I talked quite a bit with my own father who was nearing the end of his own life; and, he talked of his own regrets. Damn! That was hitting closer to home.

The good news, for me, is I let the lessons of “the Preacher” and my own father, as well as Lao-tzu, really take hold in my own heart. I cultivated them. I am still cultivating them. And my regrets (yes, I still have some of those) came at a much younger age (maybe midlife, rather than nearer the end).

I happen to know that a majority of my followers on Tumblr are much younger than me. It is the nature of social media. And, I hope all you young souls will learn the lessons, I learned, much younger than me. It will be so much better for you.

Every one of the commentators, today, have so much wisdom to share about today’s verse. I hope you will reread them all, again and again. Let them take root!

But the story Huai-nan-tzu tells is particularly poignant to me. If I was to bother to send a letter to President Trump, and, for that matter, any leader in the world, I think it would just be a retelling of this little story. Alas, I see it as a prophetic voice of what the end will be of US foreign policy.

I happen to be typing this up the same day as Trump is speaking for the first time at the UN. Yeah, I know I am about two weeks ahead on my blog posts. And, while I don’t have all the details yet, I assume Trump is reassuring the world he is going to be continuing the status quo.

I am become quite cynical these days. I don’t expect anything great out of our elected rulers. Let me rephrase that. I do expect something great. Great loss. Regret comes too late. We should have known when to stop.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

HUANG MAO-TS’AI (FL. 1174-1190). Scholar and military official. Lao-tzu-chieh.

SSU-MA KUANG (1019-1086). One of the most famous writers and political figures of the Sung dynasty and adversary of Wang An-shih. His multivolume history of China remains one of the most thorough treatments of China’s past up through the T’ang dynasty. His commentary interprets Lao-tzu’s text using Confucian terminology and neo-Confucian concepts. Tao-te-chen-ching-lun.

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