Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Verse 13: Aim for the Middle

Verse Thirteen
Winning can be just as bad as losing.
Confidence can mess you up
just as much as fear.

What does
"winning can be just as bad as losing" mean?

If you're down,
you might be able to get up.
But if you're up,
you can get knocked down real fast.
Don't worry about the score,
just do what you have to do.

What does
"confidence can mess you up
just as much as fear" mean?

Fear can keep you
from getting the job done,
but confidence
can get you in over your head.
Walk tall, but don't get cocky.

Know your limits,
and nothing can ever hold you back.
Deal with what you can.
The rest will follow.
~ Ron Hogan rendition ~
In many ways, this verse appears to be very paradoxical! It suggests that winning and losing plus confidence and lack of confidence are equally bad. This appears to go against all that we've learned in a society built upon competition.

However, as The Doubtful Taoist points out,
Verse 13 of the Tao Te Ching addresses the issue of being motivated by our fears and wants related to our social standing. It says that whether we are at the top of the social rung or at the bottom, we suffer from anxiety based on our position along that social ladder. If we’re at the bottom, we suffer from wanting to rise. If we’re at the top, we suffer from the fear of losing our position.

For many of us this is going on without our even realizing it. Others of us are keenly attentive of it. Either way, it’s to our advantage to step back and take stock of the situation so that we can minimize the power this kind of thinking has over us.
In essence, what Lao Tzu is warning us against is allowing our ego to reign supreme. When our ego is in the driver's seat, our lives are marked by extremes. We're always straining in one direction or the other and, when we strain toward something, it makes us unbalanced and generates stress.

However, when we aim for the middle ground between our penchant for extremes, we can stay centered and in balance.

Another point I'd like to draw out will be made easier to understand by quoting the last line of the Feng-English translation:
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.
In some ways, this sounds very similar to the Biblical passage that urges us to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves. However, in my mind's eye, it goes much further. While the Christian version focuses exclusively on other people, Lao Tzu does not make this distinction at all! The "world" covers everything!

For me, this goes a long way toward identifying the chief reason why the Christian world has been, for the most part, so blase toward environmental issues. When you only see connections with those of your kind, then everything else is treated like an unwanted step-child.

Taoists, on the other hand, see the connections of all things. When everything is placed on equal footing, then every action is understood to positively or negatively impact different aspects of reality. It should cause one to be more mindful and to make decisions in a more comprehensive manner.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. "Know your limits, and nothing can ever hold you back." That's an interesting line. The verse is very paradoxical, you're right, but without a balance in what we do, everything could be a paradox.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Ben,
    You're certainly right about the use of paradox. It's one of Lao Tzu's favorite vehicles. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. I love this verse, and I enjoy the translator's style. Though it's structured as an apparent contradiction, a contradiction on the surface, it doesn't really seem that paradoxical to me. I am reminded of Rudyard Kipling's wonderful poem, "If":

    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two imposters just the same

    I like the point you drew from The Doubtful Taoist's comment, that being motivated by either overconfidence or anxiety is a shallow, ego-based way to live one's life. I would say it is broader than just the social context, though. Even internally or in a creative sense, we can get so wrapped up in our hopes for success or fears of failure that we completely lose sight of the thing we are trying to accomplish or become.

    And the Lao Tzu quote is wonderful! I think love is always enriched, and enriches, when its bounds are made wider rather than narrower. Love for all that is, huzzah!


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