Chapter 58 – Laid Back
When a nation is ruled
with a light touch,
people lead simple lives.
When a government
is harsh and demanding,
people will spend their time
trying to outsmart it.
Happiness is rooted in misery,
and misery lurks beneath all joy.
Who knows what could happen tomorrow?
Everything is relative;
what’s considered proper today
may become improper.
may hide dishonesty and sinfulness.
No wonder so many people get confused.
The Masters have sharp minds,
not sharp tongues.
They are austere,
but never judgmental.
They are straightforward,
but not provocative.
They are brilliant,
but not flashy.
Interpretation by Ron Hogan (2004)
There are many ways to approach this chapter, but I would first like to consider it as a continuation of what was said in the previous chapter. In Chapter 57 Lao Tzu explains that the best way to govern a state is unobtrusively with the correctness of Te – which is to say in accord with Tao.
He begins this chapter telling us that ruling with a light touch will let the people lead simple, peaceful lives. But if the ruler is domineering and heavy-handed, the citizens will not trust him, finding ways to avoid excessive taxes, regulations, etc.
The advice Lao Tzu offers here is not relevant only to princes, but to anyone who is a parent, a manager or in any position of apparent authority with respect to others. It even provides guidance to help an individual live a life of Te. Having looked at politics and government in the commentary on Chapter 57, I would like to go to the other end of the spectrum and consider the individual in this “Tao Te Ching Tuesday” offering.
There is a translation of the Tao Te Ching by a scholar named Charles Muller. I usually do not refer to it, but I appreciate the way he begins this chapter:
“When the government is laid back
The people are relaxed.
When the government is nitpicking
The people have anxiety.“
Now “laid back” is not a term I would normally apply to a government, though it can certainly be descriptive of an individual; and it is a good description in the vernacular for one aspect of Te. Here in Chapter 58 we are essentially told what we might expect to observe in the person of a laid-back sage. Such a person lives in the moment and understands that what goes around comes around. He knows that things aren’t always as they seem to be and that the trends and belief systems of the physical world are in a state of constant change. His approach to these matters is, as Ron Hogan writes here, to have a sharp mind but not a sharp tongue, to be austere and non-judgmental, straightforward but not provocative and brilliant but not flashy.
I picked Ron Hogan’s version of this chapter because it would certainly have to be considered “laid back.” Hogan is not a Chinese scholar – his formal education relates to cinema. He did not translate the Tao Te Ching. Rather, he read several translations by others and then paraphrased them in a way that he thought would be modern and relevant. Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t, but that is certainly a laid-back approach. He seems to be saying, “Those who know can speak, but they don’t have to translate.”
I have no argument with the concept that to the extent a person knows and exemplifies Tao it is not critical what, if any, words he or she may use.
Of course there is more to this chapter than “don’t worry, be happy.”
In pointing out that happiness is rooted in misery, misery lurks in joy, all things are relative, and similar aphorisms, Lao Tzu is again leading us to recognize the wholeness which underlies perceived opposites. Thus, joy is not the opposite of misery; the two are complementary experiences of an integrated whole. High and low are relative concepts, as are hot and cold and young and old. Knowing and understanding those entireties is a step in the right direction, but to live in the virtue of Te, following Tao, in accord with Nature, that wholeness cannot be merely intellectual, but must become a part of a sage’s body, mind and spirit. Then the sage lays back.
There is a famous quotation from American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe that motivational speakers and coaches are fond of repeating. It goes like this: “When you get into a tight place, and everything goes against you till it seems as if you couldn’t hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that ‘s just the place and time that the tide ‘ll turn.” That sounds a lot like Lao Tzu telling us that happiness is rooted in misery. Again, though, that is not the whole picture. Remember, things are not always as they seem.
I have never found that quotation placed in context by any of the motivators, so I would like to give it some context now. Those words are found in Stowe’s 1869 novel Old Town Folks. A rural minister named Mr. Avery is described offering advice to two local boys as they leave their New England homes to attend college in Boston. He tells them:
“‘You are going into college life, boys, and you must take care of your bodies. Many a boy breaks down because he keeps his country appetite and loses his country exercise. You must balance study and brain-work by exercise and muscle-work, or you ‘ll be down with dyspepsia, and won’t know what ails you. People have wondered where the seat of original sin is; I think it ‘s in the stomach. A man eats too much and neglects exercise, and the Devil has him all his own way, and the little imps, with their long black fingers, play on his nerves like a piano. Never overwork either body or mind, boys. All the work that a man can do that can be rested by one night’s sleep is good for him, but fatigue that goes into the next day is always bad. Never get discouraged at difficulties. I give you both this piece of advice. When you get into a tight place, and everything goes against you till it seems as if you couldn’t hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that ‘s just the place and time that the tide ‘ll turn. Never trust to prayer without using every means in your power, and never use the means without trusting in prayer. Get your evidences of grace by pressing forward to the mark, and not by groping with a lantern after the boundary-lines, – and so, boys, go, and God bless you!'”
In other words, they are told to be aware of and nurture the whole person. If they can do that, they can lay back.
An even better example is a story about famed Chinese scholar Richard Wilhelm that is told in psychologist Carl Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Wilhelm went to China as a missionary in 1899, at the age of 26, and lived there for the next quarter century. At that time most Europeans had very little respect for Chinese culture (which was one of the causes of the Boxer Rebellion at that time), but as Wilhelm began to study Chinese philosophical texts, he developed first a healthy respect for those beliefs; and then became mentally conflicted as he tried to reconcile them with his Western Christian heritage.
In 1910, as the intellectual battle played out within his mind and spirit, he became seriously ill with amoebic dysentery. The illness was symbolic, according to Jung, as his European body was being ravaged by a parasite ingested with Chinese food. He languished near death for months until he met a sage named Lao Nai-hsuan. Lao helped him to integrate the two philosophical traditions and Wilhelm quickly recovered.
Under Lao’s guidance Wilhelm applied himself to studying and translating Chinese classics such as the I Ching, Tao Te Ching and Secret of the Golden Flower. The acceptance of those works in Germany and throughout Europe was instrumental in creating a means for Westerners to begin to appreciate the kowledge and wisdom of the Chinese world-view.
However, the story doesn’t end there. After his return to Germany, Wilhelm taught and lectured extensively. He met Carl Jung as a result of his teaching, and Jung remarked that though Wilhelm certainly looked German, he appeared more Chinese in the way he thought and presented himself. His re-immersion in Western culture seemed to rekindle the spiritual conflict he had battled during his early years in China. Jung heard him speak later and thought Wilhelm now sounded more like a European preacher. Jung told him, “My dear Wilhelm, please do not take this amiss, but I have the feeling that the West is taking possession of you again, and that you are becoming unfaithful to your mission of transmitting the East to the West.”
As Wilhelm’s inner turmoil continued, the parasites he had ingested in China, and which had been dormant in his body for so many years, came to life. He again suffered greatly with amoebic dysentery until the disease finally took his life in 1930.
The symbolism is obvious, and Jung clearly believed that the mental and spiritual conflict was the cause of the physical illness.
One cannot be laid back with that kind of conflict – a conflict which is resolved only through integration (not just intellectual recognition) of wholeness. Such integration is that which fosters virtue (Te) and permits one to properly govern a country, a business, a family or himself.