All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.
If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn to follow them.
The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 66, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu was talking about teaching people to not-know. Our problem is, and always has been, that we think we know. We don’t know that we don’t know. That is our ignorance and our pride.
Today, we continue with the training of leaders in the art of living; so, they can serve as an example to all the people. That is what Lao Tzu means about the art of governing. It is the art of serving. This is what separates someone who wants to be a leader from someone who wants to be a ruler. We call our elected rulers, public servants. But that has always been a misnomer. They have always, and will always, only serve their own interests.
A leader doesn’t seek to be first. Instead, she always places herself last. A leader doesn’t seek to be on top. Instead, she always places herself beneath. A leader chooses the path of humility. She understands that humility is what gives the sea its power. Streams don’t flow uphill. So, she places herself below the people. From that position, all the people will naturally come to her. She has learned to follow the people; and thus, she can lead them.
Tomorrow, I am going to address the criticism that these teachings are either utter nonsense, or lofty and impractical. Yeah, I cheated and I looked ahead to see what the next chapter was going to be about. But for today, I really want to address this need to practice humility. Lao Tzu tells us that though the Master is above the people, no one feels oppressed. That even though she goes ahead of the people, no one feels manipulated. This is important to understand because I think we don’t actually have any working knowledge of what humility looks like in the public sector.
Everyone seems to always be competing with each other to see who can come out on top and stay on top. And where does all this get us? Our history is replete with people feeling manipulated and oppressed. That is what the ruling class does to us. But, I survey my Facebook news feed, and the people seem entirely ignorant of the reality that they are being manipulated and oppressed. Don’t misunderstand me, they are showing all the signs of a people that are manipulated and oppressed. But, they don’t know it. If they knew something was afflicting them, no doubt they’d seek out a physician. Is ignorance bliss? They don’t seem very blissful to me.
This is the thing that is bothering me thwhich I was talking about yesterday. I am torn between wanting the people to know, and Lao Tzu’s teaching them to not-know. The cognitive dissonance is so strong. How can I educate them? No, Lao Tzu is right. It is much better to teach them to not-know. Their problem isn’t so much that they don’t know, as it is that they think they know.
I want the people to not be oppressed. I want the people to not be manipulated. I want leaders for which the whole world will be grateful.