Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.
Therefore the Master
fulfills her obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 79, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Previously, in the Tao Te Ching we have talked about success and failure. Lao Tzu asked the rhetorical question, “Of the two, which is more dangerous?” And, he talked about the problem of being on the proverbial ladder of success; saying, “We are always in danger, as long as both our feet aren’t squarely on the ground.” We are nearing the end of the Tao Te Ching, now; and, as these chapters draw to a close, it is a good idea to come to the understanding that we are going to fail, a whole lot more than we care to imagine. Failure isn’t optionial. We are going to fail. Now, don’t get down. Failure isn’t the end of the world. It is just a fact of life. You will also succeed much more often than you can imagine.
But today’s chapter is more about failure than success. Or, maybe it would best be described as how to turn failure into success. The key is in how we choose to view failure. Lao Tzu wants us to view our many failures as opportunities. For example, we now know how not to do whatever we just failed at. There are certainly plenty of lessons to learn. But that isn’t what interests Lao Tzu in today’s chapter.
When Lao Tzu is talking about failure and opportunity. He is talking about contractual obligations and conflict resolution between two parties. That theme comes through more clearly in the original, I think, than Stephen Mitchell’s translation, but we can still see it in the translation we have before us.
Lao Tzu sees failure as an opportunity because it gives you one of two very different paths to take when it comes to dealing with the other party to the contract. He begins with the failure being your own. But he also will cover the opportunity you have when the failure is the other party’s.
First, the opportunity you have when the failure is your own. You could, because it is so very tempting, go down the path of blaming someone else. That, we should not be surprised to learn, is not the path that Lao Tzu would have us walk. You start walking down that path and there will be no end to the blame.
There is a better way. When we fail, we are at a crossroads. One path is the path of blame. But there is another path to take. And that is the path of fulfilling all of your obligations. Correcting all of your own mistakes. Doing whatever needs to be done.
The way I saw this expressed in other translations of today’s chapter was as a contract between two parties. Every contract has two sides. There is the side where you have what you are obligated to do. And the side where you will find what the other party is obligated to do. This is the best illustration of what Lao Tzu is referring to in today’s chapter.
You have contractually obligated yourself. And, you have failed. Now, what do you do? This is where you correct your mistakes to the very best of your ability. Those obligations still need to be fulfilled. Do what you need to do in order to fulfill those obligations. That seems fair enough. And, though it is going to be difficult, you still need to do it. It is the right thing to do. So far, so good.
But there is more to this failure thing than that. Because there are two sides to that contract. What if the failure is not your own? What if the other party to the contract is the one who has failed? Even that other person’s failure is an opportunity for you. Obviously, we hope the other party will behave the way we know to behave when the failure was our own. But the failure is theirs not ours. And now the shoe is on the other foot. That is when Lao Tzu tells us that we are once again at a crossroads. This is when Lao Tzu tells us to choose the right path. If the failure is the other party’s, make no demands of them.
That is right. Demand nothing of them. That is where we leave it to the Tao to balance things out. We take care of our obligations. And, we leave it to the Tao to balance things out, demanding nothing of the other party.
I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on television. But, I think that the whole world would be transformed if, one by one, we each would put this into practice in our own lives. Stop saying, “But what about the others?” It isn’t about the others. It is about you. Fulfill your obligations. Trust the Tao. Demand nothing of the others.