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)
Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter with three rhetorical questions. The point of these three questions is to show us how to be truly fulfilled and happy with ourselves.
The question of what we think is more important, fame or integrity, relates to whether or not we will experience true fulfillment. We might try and dodge the question by asking why can’t we have both. But that isn’t the question. Can you have both fame and integrity? Of course, you can! But that doesn’t answer the question of which is more important to you. Fame is an outward thing, while integrity is an inward thing. If you are looking to others for fulfillment, you will never truly be fulfilled. If fame is more important to you, your focus will be on outward things. And that outward focus will leave you unsatisfied, not content with yourself. By choosing integrity as the most important thing, your focus is on inward things. It is a lesson I taught my own children, and continue to teach to the children I work with, today. We don’t have any control over what is going on outside of ourselves. We don’t have any control over others, how they behave, and the choices they make. But we can control ourselves. The path to true fulfillment begins and ends with ourselves. how we choose to behave, the choices we make. We are free, completely free. Although others might try to control us, they can’t control us, any more than we can control them. Obviously, we aren’t talking about outward controls here. We are talking about who and what we are on the inside. If you want to be truly fulfilled, you will focus on what you can do something about. Yourself.
The question of what we think is more valuable, money or happiness, relates to whether or not we will ever be happy with ourselves. Once again, we might try and dodge the question by asking why we can’t have both. But the question isn’t whether you can have money and happiness. Who doesn’t want both? The question is whether you think your happiness depends on money. If you don’t think happiness is possible without money, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of being unhappy. What you are doing is deciding that money is more valuable than happiness. Oh, you will argue that what you are really doing is valuing happiness. It is just that you need money to achieve it. But, just like with fame and integrity, money and happiness are very different motivations. Money, like fame, is an outward thing, while happiness, like integrity, is an inward thing. And, as long as your focus is on outward things, you will never be truly fulfilled. You will never be satisfied. You will never be content. Why? Because outward things remain solidly beyond your control. Who hasn’t heard the very old and cliched adage, “Money can’t buy happiness”? But just because it is a cliché, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I know why we tend to scoff at this notion. But deep down at its root, we scoff because we value money more than happiness. If we really valued happiness, we would seek to find it in the only place it can be found. And that is inside yourself. Ultimately, whether or not you are happy with yourself, is your choice. And the only way to make that choice is to start by looking inside yourself, and assessing which is more important to you, and which is more valuable.
That leads us to the third and final rhetorical question. The first two were easy to answer, really. Lao Tzu wants us to choose integrity over fame, and happiness over money. And in our hearts, we know those are the right choices. But this third question is different.
Now, we are asked which is more destructive, success or failure. We could go back and forth with this one, trying to decide which is more destructive. But I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu is about. He has already talked about success and failure. It was when he was talking about that infamous ladder, back in chapter 13. There, he said success and failure are equally dangerous. Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your position is shaky. It is only when you stand with both your feet on the ground, that you will always keep your balance. Success and failure are equally dangerous; and, they are equally destructive. They are equally destructive for the same reason that fame and money are. They have you focused on something outside of yourself. Fulfillment and happiness can never depend on something outside of you, because you have no control over what happens outside of you. That ladder, with which we measure success and failure, is outside of you. It is a shaky place on which to pin your fulfillment and happiness.
True fulfillment and happiness are an inward thing. We have to focus on inward things. Whether or not we are truly fulfilled and whether or not we are truly happy depends on ourselves. Choosing the inward over the outward means choosing to be content with what I already have. This isn’t as difficult as I might try to make it out to be, because choosing to not be content is to focus on outward circumstances. But I have already determined I have no control over outward circumstances. They can’t be a determining factor in whether or not I am content. I can be content with what I have, because what I have, has to be enough. This is something I had to realize.
I have made this about me for a reason. I don’t want anyone to think, well that is easy for you to say, but when have you ever known lack? I well remember Spring and early Summer 2009, when through a series of unfortunate events, fueled by bad choices on my own part, I found myself both unemployed and homeless. My son, who was still in high school at the time, spent a few months with friends. And, I relied heavily on the benevolence of friends and family. I could have easily pointed the finger of blame at others. But then, there would have been no end to the blame. Instead, when faced with the choice, I chose to focus on me. I did some serious self-assessment. Lao Tzu came to my aid, in offering me a way out of my malaise. It is how I came to realize I have everything I need.
After saying, “Be content with what you have” Lao Tzu says, “rejoice in the way things are”. Rejoice! Don’t gripe and complain. Don’t be dissatisfied. Make a conscious choice to rejoice. Be content. Be thankful. I considered this: If I can’t control whether or not I have more than enough, I might as well be content with what I have. It has to be enough. I have had more. And, I have had less. But in both cases, I always had enough. Even when I wanted more, I had enough. Though when I wanted more, it was hard to accept that I had enough. But then, I started rejoicing. I started to behave as if I was content. That was when I realized that there is nothing lacking. As long as I saw lack, I was never satisfied. But once I realized that there is nothing lacking, I realized something more; the whole world belongs to me.