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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We are nearing the end of another cycle through the Tao Te Ching. Throughout the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu has been telling would be leaders how to govern a country wisely. Today, he doesn’t tell us how. If we have been paying attention, we already know the how. But he does tell us what the consequences will be if a country is governed wisely. Its inhabitants will be content.
He has also devoted a lot of time to what it means to be content. Today’s chapter, with its idyllic picture of what Lao Tzu thinks true contentment looks like, encapsulates everything he has been saying all along.
I have always found this chapter fascinating. For me, it brings to mind Tolkien’s Shire. Simple hobbit folk content with their very ordinary lives. This is Lao Tzu’s picture of true contentment. And, it is mine as well. But, I never am quite satisfied with leaving it at that. We are all individuals. A hobbit’s life isn’t everyone’s ideal for being content. So, I always temper my own delight with one simple question to my readers. “What is it going to take for you to be content?”
I actually have two reasons for asking this question. First, I think that sometimes we can’t see the forest for all the trees. I just imagine that a whole lot of people are going to be reading through this chapter and getting bogged down with objections like, “What is wrong with labor-saving devices?” And, “What, I can’t love to travel?” Like I already said, it isn’t everyone’s idyllic picture of contentment. But, I do think you are missing Lao Tzu’s point.
The second reason I have for asking the question is that Lao Tzu has been very diligent all along about describing where true contentment is to be found. And it isn’t based on our outward circumstances. It comes from the inside. So, I am going to ask you all, once again, “What is it going to take for you to be content?”
In the midst of all these trees, there is bound to be a forest here, somewhere. I happen to love labor saving devices. My own life, along with countless millions of other lives are enriched by them. But, how might we be wasting our time inventing them? The question Lao Tzu is asking of us is, “Why aren’t you content?” And, there isn’t anything at all wrong with traveling. It is actually a shame I feel the need to affirm that. Because that isn’t the point. The point is, why don’t you dearly love your home? Why do you not find enjoyment in the food that you eat? Why don’t you take pleasure in your family? These, and other questions, are begging to be answered by you as you read through today’s chapter.
Because we know we are not content. And we aren’t quite sure what it is going to take for us to be content. And Lao Tzu just wants you to know if you are looking for contentment in outward circumstances, you aren’t going to find it there. No amount of labor-saving devices is going to change that. And no matter how far you roam from home, you won’t find it there, either.
It is tempting to just blame it on the government. After all, if a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. And, that is true. But, even that is something that we really can’t do much about. If having your country governed wisely is what it is going to take, you might never be content. No, I am going to go back to what Lao Tzu has been saying all along. True contentment is something you can only find deep inside yourself. Find it there. Keep it there.