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)
Today, we continue talking about the art of governing. For the last couple of days we have been talking about the need to practice self-restraint if we want to govern a country well. Yesterday, we talked about how to deal with the problem of evil. With ISIS releasing regular videos of beheadings, it is very easy to spot the presence of evil. And people will insist that we can’t just ignore the presence of evil. But, when Lao Tzu tells us not to poke it, he isn’t saying to be ignorant of it. Not poking, or not intervening, is not ignoring it. We acknowledge evil for what it is. Then, we steer clear of it. That, my friends, is an art. It is the art of governing a country well. And, today, Lao Tzu tells us exactly what virtue we are going to need, if we are going to be able to steer clear of evil.
I read the first few lines of this chapter and can’t help but think of the United States. But, it isn’t just the United States. This applies to every country, in the history of the world, that has obtained great power. Pride is ever the downfall of great and powerful nations. That is why Lao Tzu’s words ring so true.
It is humility that we need. When a country obtains great power, it becomes like the sea. All streams run downward into it. That is Lao Tzu’s metaphor for humility. The sea is great because it takes the lowest position. Because it has the lowest position, all streams run downward into it. Countries become great and powerful by being humble. This is a law of the Universe. It is the way of the Tao. If you want to become something, you must first allow yourself to be what you are. Beginnings are always humble.
But here is where every nation-state eventually fails. For, they must stay humble. As they grow more powerful, humility gets tossed away; as if it is no longer needed. But, the need for humility only grows as a nation grows more powerful. I am going to keep repeating myself. But, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t just have yang. You have to have yin, as well. To have great power, you must, in turn, have great humility.
So, what does Lao Tzu mean by humility? Humility means trusting the Tao. If you put your country’s trust in the Tao, you will never need to be defensive. But how do we do that? How do we put our country’s trust in the Tao? I am not a member of the political class. And, no member of the political class appears willing to practice any humility; as they continue to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. So what can any of us actually do?
This is where Lao Tzu takes things from the nationwide level to the individual level. He never was talking to whole countries. He is talking to us individuals. He tells us that a great nation is like a great man. So, all you “wanna be” great leaders, listen up.
When you make a mistake, realize it. That is the first step. Know when you screw up. Second step: Once you realize you screwed up, admit it. Own up to it. Why is this so hard to do? It isn’t hard for the truly great. Just the posers. Third step: Now that you have owned your mistake, correct it. It really is as simple as one, two, three.
But, as simple as it is, few and far between are those who will do all three. What separates a great leader from all the rest? These three steps. All the others falter here. But, a great leader considers those who point out their faults as one of their most benevolent teachers. This takes humility, friends. A humility that you won’t find in your nation’s capitol, I am sad to say. They are so quick to point fingers of blame at someone else. A great leader understands who the real enemy is. They see the real enemy in the shadow they themselves cast.
I want my nation to be centered in the Tao. I want it nourishing its own people and not meddling in the affairs of others. Is that so much to ask? I think it is a simple request. But, the simple can be very difficult to attain. Still, if people just like me, in all humility, will content ourselves with serving as an example, I think we can all live in a nation that is a light to all the nations of the world. Maybe they won’t, but we can.