The Virtue Of Self-Restraint

For governing a country well
there is nothing better than moderation.
The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky.
All pervading like sunlight.
Firm like a mountain.
Supple like a tree in the wind.
He has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.

Nothing is impossible to him.
Because he has let go,
he can care for the people’s welfare
as a mother cares for her child.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 59, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We have been talking for the last couple of days about how to be a great leader. Yesterday, Lao Tzu contrasted governing a country with tolerance versus governing a country with repression. Quite simply, there is all the difference in the world between the two, both as to method and results. Suffice it to say that if you really want comfortable and honest people, you’ll choose to govern with tolerance. Lao Tzu spent a great deal of his time explaining that no matter how well-intentioned our plans for a country may be, if we try to achieve them through repression, we are only going to make things much worse.

Today, we are going to talk a little more about the virtue of tolerance. But first, we need to get past a certain word in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of today’s chapter. That word is moderation. It isn’t often that I take issue with the words that Mr. Mitchell uses in his translation. I have long considered it, by far, the best translation of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching. But that doesn’t mean I don’t consult other translations as I prepare my daily commentary on each chapter. And, I must take issue today with the word moderation.

My first reason to take issue with it is because I think it is a word that is largely misunderstood in political circles. And, because we are talking about governing, politics does come into play. Thinking purely politically, what do you think of when you think of moderation? Or, more specifically, what characterizes those who are referred to as moderates?

I don’t know, maybe I am alone in this; but I don’t think any of the so-called “moderates” are, in any way, shape, or form, virtuous. They come across, at least to me, as people that you just never know where they are going to stand on any issue. Are they going to vote with their own party, or rebel and vote with the other? We don’t know. They seemingly hold all the power, the whole house of cards will either stand or come crashing down based on the outcome of their decision. And what is their defining principle? I wonder if they even know. Are they practicing moderation? Not if I understand what Lao Tzu means by the word.

My second reason for taking issue with the word moderation, today, is that I think there is a better word to convey the meaning of the virtue that Lao Tzu is talking about today. If you read through a few different translations you will find it. It is restraint.

So, I am throwing out “moderation” and “moderate” today and substituting the words “restraint” and “restrained.” Let’s see what that does.

“For governing a country well, there is nothing better than restraint.” Ah, there is a word I can sink my teeth into. What Lao Tzu has been saying all along is that if we want to effectively govern a country well, we must give up our need to control. And that, my friends, requires what Lao Tzu considers a very high virtue. If you want to be a great leader, if you want to govern a country well, you must restrain yourself. To keep yourself from this desire to control others, you must practice controlling yourself. You must restrain yourself.

“The mark of a restrained man is freedom from his own ideas.” Now, let me pause for just a moment and be clear on what I think Lao Tzu means by restraint and restrained. I understand that both of those words can be used to refer to outside force being used on another individual. Yes, I know what a restraining order is. I also know that agents of the State often restrain those of us deemed not to be following the dictates of the State. But Lao Tzu isn’t talking about outside force being used to restrain, here. He has already talked about the evils of repression. Lao Tzu is talking about an inner restraint. Holding back from doing something that would cause harm. And, especially, holding back from doing our well-intentioned good deeds that likewise, will have disastrous results.

Trying to control others. The initiation of force. These are not the way to govern. If we want to govern a country well, we need to practice restraining ourselves. So, Lao Tzu begins listing the marks of a person who practices this inner restraint. Lao Tzu begins by saying that such a person is in a state of freedom from their own ideas. What does he mean by that? Well, what does freedom mean? It doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own ideas. We most certainly do. But, freedom from them, means we aren’t enslaved by them. Our ideas don’t rule us. We are in charge. Our ideas are subordinate to us.

I think we can better illustrate what Lao Tzu is getting at with this freedom from our own ideas, as we look at how he goes on to further describe this restrained person. They are tolerant like the sky. There is that word tolerance again. I promised we were going there again. For producing comfortable and honest people, you need to be tolerant. How tolerant? Lao Tzu says, the sky is the limit. How much are you going to restrain yourself? How tolerant are you going to have to be? If the sky is the limit, there must be no limit to your tolerance.

But, like I said, freedom from your ideas doesn’t mean you don’t have ideas. No, though this leader is restrained in their governing; they are yet, firm like a mountain. Their ideas are majestic, like mountains. And, they are going to be reckoned with.

But this is where another quality of the restrained person comes into sharp focus. They are supple like a tree in the wind. Suppleness is another one of those qualities that Lao Tzu has spoken of quite a lot with regard to the Tao and the Master. Can you be both firm like a mountain and soft like water? Well, if you are a tree in the wind, you better be. Flexibility is key to survival for that tree. If it won’t bend, it will break.

Which brings us to the last quality, the last mark of the virtue of restraint within a person with freedom from their own ideas. They have no destination in view. No destination in view? I know how bizarre this will seem to those who have not been with me very long, taking a chapter at a time through the Tao Te Ching. I have been adding new followers pretty steadily on tumblr. I just surpassed the thousand follower plateau a day or so ago. Thank you, one and all. It is with great humility that I consider you all to be friends. And, it is because I consider you all friends, that I want to take the time to explain what Lao Tzu means by this.

Having no destination in view is a mark of utmost restraint. Why? Because that person is trusting the Tao. This person is not looking ahead at some future end that may or may not happen. Instead, this person is living in the present moment. Letting things come and go as they will. Making use of anything life happens to bring their way. Because, guess what? Life has a way of throwing you curves when you were “expecting” a fast ball. But this person isn’t “expecting” anything. They are just going with the flow. And, you know what? Nothing is impossible for them.

Why? Because they have let go. That, my friends is freedom from your own ideas. You want to care for the people’s welfare, right? I mean, that is why you are there, governing the country, right? To care for the people’s welfare. That was your idea all along. The one you needed to free yourself from. Because you knew as long as you tried to care for the people, you were only going to make things worse. And, because you have restrained yourself. Because your government is marked by your own restraint. You are now able to care for the people’s welfare. Just as a mother cares for her child.

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