Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success
is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope
is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self,
then you can care for all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 13, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
The last time I talked about this chapter was New Years Eve, 2014. It was a time to reflect on another year ending and a new one beginning. It seemed timely then for Lao Tzu to be talking about success and failure, hopes and fears. Eighty-one days later and now we are probably realizing how many of those New Year resolutions have fallen by the wayside, yet again. Don’t beat yourself up. Today’s chapter is just for you.
Lao Tzu understood that success and failure were equally dangerous. And, as far as hope and fear go? Well, they are equally hollow. Not convinced? Well, let’s try to understand things from his perspective.
What he was trying to warn us of, is the danger of that proverbial ladder of success. Ladders are notoriously shaky things. Even the real ones. But, Lao Tzu was addressing the imaginary one. The ladder with rungs that take us step by step further and further away from the reality of the ground beneath our feet. Many of us see the ladder and immediately notice missing rungs. For some, those rungs are missing right at the very start. You want to succeed? Good luck with that. For others, the rungs at the bottom are easy to reach; it is only later that you don’t know where that next step is going to take you. We, of course, have had it drilled in our heads that we must climb that ladder. It is just the way things have to be. No changing it.
Yet, Lao Tzu has the audacity to claim that there is something better for us; if we will dare to keep both feet on the ground. That better thing is balance. So much better than that shaky ladder with its missing rungs. So, is Lao Tzu saying to us to just give up? To decide not to even try and succeed? I don’t think so. I think he is saying there is a better way to live. That measuring success and failure by what position you are, on an imaginary ladder, is no way to live. Every journey begins and ends at the ground beneath our feet. He wants us to keep both our feet firmly planted on the ground of reality. This is the only way to maintain balance in our lives.
And speaking of reality, can you see why it is that hope and fear are equally hollow? It is because they aren’t real. They are just phantoms. They aren’t real. So they aren’t grounded in reality either. Now, I want to be clear here that we can have realistic hopes and fears. That isn’t what Lao Tzu is talking about here, though. What he is talking about is what happens when we see our selves as separate from the whole Universe. When we see ourselves as alone. And, like the whole Universe is really out to get us. That isn’t grounded in reality. It does seem like it though, sometimes. You start entertaining those thoughts and they will fill you; sometimes with hope and sometimes with fear. Doesn’t really matter which one; because they are both equally false. Both equally hollow.
Lao Tzu wants us to understand that we are not alone in the Universe. And, the Universe is not out to get us. I’d even go so far as to say the Universe wants each and every one of us to succeed. If only we will let it. But that means understanding the reality of the way things are. And having faith in that reality. So, what is the reality that Lao Tzu is speaking of? What does it really mean to keep both our feet on the ground?
It means that we stop seeing ourselves as separate, apart, alone. And choose instead, to see the whole world (actually, the whole Universe) as connected. To see yourself not just as part of the Universe; but, the whole Universe as complete in you. It is a matter of seeing the Universe in us instead of seeing ourselves in the Universe. A simple change in perspective. But oh, what a difference it makes. That is reality. That is the way things are. Have faith in that; even if you can’t have faith in any other thing. Love the world in you, the Universe in you. You and the Universe are one. Start seeing the Universe in you. Then you can start to care for all things in the Universe.