Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
Success and failure
Chapter 13 provides a completely unapologetic critique of man-made ideas about success and fame. And in the world we live in, with her obsession with success and image, it is so important to hear these words. The original title for this post was “Lao Tzu: the worst motivational speaker ever,” and that might be a nice cheeky way to sum it all up.
After all, what is success? And who gets to define it? We’ve been given a laundry list of things that make someone successful. It’s true, they vary a good bit based on your social group and demographic - the high-powered businessman, the hipster starving artist in Portland, and the rural farmer all have very different definitions of the word. But all definitions of success are just social constructs. There are plenty of overlapping similarities, but there is no universal idea of “success” that is built into our DNA. There are only different ideal visions built into each culture or subculture. In my mind, all of them have two things in common:
The first point of common ground for “success stories” is competition. This is made clear in Stephen Mitchell’s translation above. In an individualistic culture like in the US, you don’t really find narratives of success that depend on the well-being of the community. And because success is for individuals each looking for limited resources, like money, or status, or positions of authority, then that means everyone else is - in one sense or another - a potential threat to our achievement of success. We’re all competitors in a big game.
The funny thing is that the horizon of success always seems to keep moving. The game is never really “won,” we just find ourselves moving up to the next league with a new set of opponents.
Marshall Davis’s translation gives us a different way of looking at this concept:
Success and failure are equally dangerous.
They are nothing more than personal opinions.
How are success and failure equally dangerous?
Failure is fear that one will not succeed, and success is fear of failure.
Both are fear, and equally to be feared.
What does it mean that both failure and success are nothing more than personal opinions?
Success is a thought in the mind, and failure is a thought in the mind.
They have no reality apart from your mind, and your understanding of yourself.
-Translator: Marshall Davis
This shows the other common ground between these narratives - that contentment and happiness are not usually stated as part of the vision of “success.” Now, we all assume that we will be happy and content if we achieve all of our success goals, and that’s a whole other problem with the system, but you don’t often hear someone say, “I think that success is just being happy.”
So the problem is that our personal happiness and contentment become contingent on achieving success. And as I said above, no matter how “successful” we get, in whatever way we define it, it’s a moving horizon. So reaching peak happiness or contentment is never really possible, because if happiness means reaching the finish line of success and that line is always out of our reach, then we’re in a pretty rough situation. Derek Lin captures this moving target well,
Favor is high, disgrace is low
Having it makes one fearful
Losing it makes one fearful
-Translator: Derek Lin
This translation gets even more to the point by making it really personal:
Success is as dangerous as failure,
and we are often our own worst enemy.
-Translator: J.H. McDonald
I’m not at all saying we shouldn’t set goals and work to meet them, but the way we define and approach “success” can often make us our own worst enemy, because most of our definitions of success are rooted in what Richard Rohr calls the False Self or the “small self.” He calls the False Self the “launching pad” for our identities, and he says it is made up of,
“... your body image, your job, your education, your clothes, your money, your car, your sexual identity, your success, and so on. These are the trappings of ego that we all use to get us through an ordinary day. They are a nice enough platform to stand on, but they are largely a projection of our self-image and our attachment to it.”
-Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pg 28
“Your False Self is who you think you are. Your thinking does not make it true. Your False Self is almost entirely a social construct to get you started on your life journey. It is a set of agreements between your childhood and your parents, your family, your neighbors, your school chums, your partner or spouse, and your religion. It is your “container” for your separate self. Jesus would call it your “wineskin,” which he points out usually cannot hold any new wine (Mark 2:21-22). Your ego container likes to stay contained and hates change.”
-Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pg 36
The problem of the False Self/separate self
According to chapter 13, the cause of our problems is that we have a “self.” Now, if the idea of the True Self and the False Self is new to you, this might sound a bit jarring at first; but the point of saying that the “self” is the problem obviously isn’t to say we’d be better off dead. The “self” here is the constructed self, the self-image as we call it, rather than the image of God within us, or the True Self. This God-image is where we find the ground of our being, and it goes beyond all the superficial stuff of life that we use to create our own so-called “selves” - our money, our career, our fashion choices, our status symbols, and even the image we present to the world. These constructed images can end up falling apart like a house built on the sand if we aren’t able to find a better foundation on which to build our identity.
Now it’s important to note that Rohr explicitly states that the so-called “False Self” isn’t bad. All of the “stuff” of life isn’t inherently bad or wrong. In fact, it is completely necessary and important as far it goes. But it just doesn’t go far enough. When our identity - our “self” - is 100% tied up with the “stuff” of life, then we’re swimming in dangerous waters. The next few lines of McDonald’s “I’m my own worst enemy” translation above make this clear:
What does it mean that we are often our own worst enemy?
The reason I have an enemy is because I have a “self”.
If I no longer had a “self”, I would no longer have an enemy.
-Translator: J.H. McDonald
Now, don’t just think this is limited to the greedy or vain people pursuing more and more money, careers, big fancy cars, etc. It’s easy to assume that the idea of “false self” is all about “that type of people” and pat ourselves on the back. The fact is that everyone has a false self, and everyone makes choices to construct their image.
But we must remember that the false self is who we think we are until we have come to a deeper understanding of our true identity. Once we have, the false self is able to stay (although it usually makes some pretty dramatic lifestyle changes) and we know that it is just part of our identity, or maybe just one expression of our true identity.
It’s easy to let ourselves get so attached to the false self that we are unable to move beyond it and find the ground of our being. For Lao Tzu, the ground of all being is the Tao. For Christians, we might say it is in God, remembering that we ourselves are created in his image. Until we connect to this deeper reality, everything is just play-acting. And after we have connected to it, all the play-acting is set free from our ego-centric attachments and able to blossom into a healthy, whole, mature human being. As Jesus said, you must “lose yourself so that you can find it,” and this is actually exactly what the last stanza of this chapter tells us.
Letting go of the self
The Tao te Ching's answer to the problem of the False Self is not eradicating it, like many ancient Eastern traditions. Instead, the real solution is an opening up of the self to the world in order to love the world as yourself.
So one who values the self as the world
Can be given the world
One who loves the self as the world
Can be entrusted with the world
-Translator: Derek Lin
If you respect the world as you respect yourself
You’re ready to tend the world.
If you care about the world as you care about yourself
You’re ready to rule the world.
-Translator: Agnieszka Solska
Love the whole world as yourself, and you will gain all things.
-Translator: Marshall Davis
Love the whole world as if it were your self;
then you will truly care for all things.
-Translator: J.H. McDonald
The point here isn’t to eradicate the self. It’s that when we get in touch with our True Self, then all of us - even our false self - begins to blossom and open to the world. We find ourselves filled with love and appreciation for all people and all things.
This doesn’t mean that we totally reject the concept of evil - instead, it makes us even more insightful in our ability to identify evil, because now we are able to see evil for what it is: the disruption of the goodness of the created order, rather than just something we don’t like or agree with because it doesn’t line up with what our false self wants and desires.
This is a profound point - although I’m going a little bit outside of what the TTC actually has to say here, I think it’s worth saying. The more we get in touch with our True Self, the more we see evil for what it is: the thing that attacks or simply just blocks us from seeing the True Self - in us or in others. Again, the True Self here is the bedrock of our identity, the foundation of our being and it can be described in a hundred ways: the image of God, the union with God that we were created for, the Holy Spirit, or the mind of Christ as the mind of the true human or new Adam.
From the false self mind, we can sometimes identify this evil, but more often “evil” is just a label we thrown on things that threaten our false self. And considering that my false self usually takes a lot of its goals and values from identifying with a community or social group (actually, many different communities and social groups) this often means that we identify evil as anything that challenges that group, which means many times “evil” is just a codeword for us-versus-them.
In a world that is seething with us-versus-them thinking, we really need people who are willing to identify and move beyond their false selves. We need people who are willing to question the social constructs of success and victory that our culture has given us. We need people who are willing to question what they mean by “evil” and “wrong” rather than slapping labels on anything from the “other side.” And we are in desperate need of people who are willing to open themselves up to the whole world and love it as they love themselves.
“When you are able to move beyond your False Self - at the right time and in the right way - it will feel precisely as if you have lost nothing. In fact, it will feel like freedom and liberation. When you are connected to the Whole, you no longer need to protect or defend the mere part. You are now connected to something inexhaustible.”
-Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pg 28