When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
All streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao;
thus, never needing to be defensive.
A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.
If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 61, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I think after having a few chapters in a row where Lao Tzu has been talking about governing a country, that it is good to remember that Lao Tzu is not writing to countries, or governments, really. He is writing this to individuals; who he believes can put into practice the words he is sharing.
Notice in today’s chapter how he segues from talking about a great nation to a great man. Lao Tzu isn’t interested in trying to motivate a collective. He is interested in motivating individuals. He does start with discussing a country that obtains great power. But his point is the importance of humility. And that is a very human trait.
By humility, Lao Tzu means trusting the Tao. When you trust the Tao, whether you are a great nation or a great person, it means you never need to be defensive. That really brings out the definition of humility for me. When you are not humble, when you don’t trust the Tao, you necessarily feel the need to be defensive.
When you are on the defensive and you make a mistake, it is very hard to first realize it, and then to admit it. But it is this that sets apart a great nation or a great person, from just the merely mediocre. We all make mistakes, both great and small, alike. Maybe it is easier for those of us that don’t think we really matter in the grand scheme of things, to realize when we have messed up. But whether or not we think we matter, it is always important to both realize and admit when we have made a mistake.
But this is only the beginning of what is required of us, if we have any hope of being really great. We must then go on to correct our mistakes. And that may be the hardest thing of them all. Keep in mind, this is what separates those who are great from those who are merely mediocre. There are plenty of pretenders out there, who have all sorts of people believing the illusion of their greatness. But if you want to see past the illusion, here is the reality. When someone has a hard time realizing they have erred, an even harder time admitting it, and gets all defensive when it is time to make amends, that is your neon sign pointing out the mere mediocrity of that person. Don’t be that guy.
It is the shame of every nation who have so called leaders that are really only mediocre at their very best. I live in the United States, the further along we go the more mediocre our leaders seem to get. And the only thing that is greater than their level of mediocrity is their level of hubris. But Lao Tzu would say that is exactly how it would be. They need to be humble. Instead they are proud. And that is their downfall.
No, what we need are great leaders, willing to serve as an example for all. The truly great ones have no need to be on the defensive. They consider those who point out their faults as their most benevolent teachers. That stands in stark contrast to so many of our so called leaders who surround themselves with sycophants. When you aren’t feeling the need to be on the defensive, you are free to think of your enemies as the shadow that you yourself cast.
Think about that last sentence for just a moment. Now, repeat after me, I am always my own worst enemy. So, how do you overcome the enemy, when he is you? By surrounding yourself, not with yes men, but with people who will be honest with you. Pointing out your faults. Insisting you admit it. Helping you to make amends. These are the kinds of people that surround great leaders.
As I read through the chapter today, I realized that great nations aren’t always the ones we think they are. For a nation to be great, it needs to be centered in the Tao. Being centered in the Tao means nourishing its own people and not meddling in the affairs of others. That right there is the definition of a great nation. If your nation doesn’t fit that description, and I know mine doesn’t, then you know your nation is only one of the merely mediocre ones. Too bad mine has delusions of grandeur, thinking it should serve as the policemen of the world. We can’t even nourish our own people. Yet, we meddle in the affairs of others. Shameful!
I am old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan said of my nation that it was a shining light on a hill for all other nations. It wasn’t really true then. And it is even less true now.