Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?
If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 44, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter begins with some rhetorical questions.
The first one seems easy enough to answer. Which is more important, fame or integrity? That is a soft ball question if ever there was one. Obviously, integrity is more important than fame. While there are, no doubt, those who think fame is more important, for their actions betray them, we all know better, don’t we?
And, the second one is much the same as the first. Which is more valuable, money or happiness? Of course, we don’t want to have to choose between the two. Just like we don’t wish to choose between fame and integrity. We want both, if we can have it. What good is cake if you can’t eat it, too? But, we know, in our heart of hearts, the proper answer to these questions. So, in the hope our actions won’t betray us, we’ll say, “Oh, happiness, of course. I’d rather be happy though penniless, than have all the money in the world and still yet be miserable.”
Soft ball questions. But, if that is so, why, then, do our actions betray us? Perhaps, we should take these questions a little more seriously, after all. Instead, we meander through life without looking inside ourselves, and peering into the darkness. And because we never spend any time looking deep within ourselves, we always end up looking outside ourselves for fulfillment and happiness.
So, hold on, right there. Let’s go back and reconsider these questions, once again. Choosing between fame and integrity is choosing between an outward thing and an inward thing. Which is more important? The answer should still be the same. But at least now, we are being honest with ourselves. Choosing to look inside ourselves for fulfillment, rather than outside of ourselves.
The choice between money and happiness is also a choice between an outward thing and an inward thing. We simply can’t base our happiness on anything outside of ourselves. Like, how much money we have. Or, whether or not our outward circumstances are how we would like them to be. It is a truth we all think we know, but many fail to realize; we don’t have all that much control over our outward circumstances. I can’t control others. I best get to work on controlling myself. That is problem enough.
The real zinger of all the questions Lao Tzu is asking today is question number three. After what we perceived to be soft balls, we never saw this one coming. Which is more destructive, success or failure? That could have us hemming and hawing for a good long time, as we vacillate between the two choices. Which is more destructive? We might think that depends on the circumstances.
The circumstances? Do you mean the outward circumstances we have already had to admit we have little control over?
But this isn’t the first time Lao Tzu has talked about success and failure. It was way back in chapter 13, where he talked about the infamous ladder (of success?). There, he said that success is as dangerous as failure. Why? Because it doesn’t matter whether you go up or down that ladder, your position is shaky. If you want to always keep your balance, stand with both your feet on the ground.
Success and failure are equally destructive for the same reason they are equally dangerous. And, for the same reason that we know better than to choose fame and money over integrity and happiness. They are focused on something outside ourselves. A ladder? Really, a ladder? If we look to others for fulfillment, we will never know true fulfillment. If our happiness depends on money, we will never be happy with ourselves. Why? Because deep down inside, we know better. We are betraying what we are in the core of our being. And that heart sickness won’t be ignored.
I am tempted to say it is time to grow up. To quit acting like little children who act like they never get their way. But then I realized that it was adults who programmed their little ones to see things that way. Our problems stem more from us acting like adults, than children. Lao Tzu has already told us we need to return to our primal identity, and be like newborns.
One thing is certain; we need to stop looking outside ourselves for answers, and start looking inside. Be content with what you have. This has absolutely nothing to do with your outward circumstances. I have had more and I have had less. And it never made any difference in whether or not I was content. Don’t let it make any difference. You do have a choice in this. No, you can’t control your outward circumstances. But you can control your self. Choose to be content with what you have. Rejoice in the way things are. It sure beats whining and complaining about the way things appear to be. The whole world belongs to you. You just don’t know it. It takes realizing there is nothing lacking, for you to get that the whole world belongs to you. But once you get that, there will be nothing that is impossible for you.