Late one night, I talked to a friend of mine to whom I haven’t for quite some time. The phone call was so long that I can’t remember what we started talking about, but there was some discussion about trying to define success, and the anger and depression that can arise when you aren’t meeting your own expectations for success. At some point, to make us both feel better, I was quoting Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching”:
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.
OK, maybe I just paraphrased him. After that, I think I was rambling about daily mantras and then drifted off-topic to sell him on the concept of a “Tao of the Day” tear-off desk calendar, sure to be a big winner at Christmas and the Chinese New Year. It wasn’t important to me at the time that this calendar may already exist.
The success of a product like that would hinge on the obligatory Oprah appearance (academics, translators, Hollywood stars who can’t live without their pocket copy of the “Tao”), and figuring out what each page of the calendar contains past March 22, when the 81 chapters of the “Tao” get used up. My memory of this talk is all pretty fuzzy, so I really could be making all this up after the fact. Long telephone conversations between guys are atypical, and surprisingly mentally taxing.
Lao Tzu is a good read even if you don’t fully know what he’s talking about. You read it and you think you understand, mostly. Trying too hard for complete comprehension would seem to be exactly what Lao Tzu wouldn’t want you to do, I think. You have to just let it wash over you. Regardless, when I get overwhelmed by my expectations for myself, when I’m my own worst critic, reading the Tao is a good counterweight to the idea that material success equates to happiness. Reading it makes me feel better.
Once I got enough sleep to think about it clearly, I wondered why people weren’t using literature as prescriptions for good daily living more often. Back in the day, if you had a problem, it wouldn’t be unusual to tap Greek philosophers, English playwrights, or Romantic poets for advice. There is very little not addressed by the likes of Plato or Shakespeare or my man John Keats. Even Ben Franklin dispensed more than a few useful one-liners in his roles as an American humorist and founding father.
The quick answer is that people are looking to the literal and not the literary. There are people now dispensing “wisdom” on very specific topics, often in self-help books or inspirational autobiographies or advice columns. Everyone has weighed in on everything in the last 30 years or so. And these authors all have agents, publicists, and big marketing budgets, none of which Lao Tzu had. The “Tao,” still relying on word-of-mouth, languishes in used-book stores while Wal-Mart stocks its shelves with version 197 of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
The problem with these new books is that, like a tear-off desk calendar, the product can be one-dimensional and of questionable quality. James Frey (and his publicist) convinced Oprah to promote his book “A Million Little Pieces,” about his life of drug addiction and recovery, and it turned out that much of the “memoir” was made up. Oprah and her viewers would have been better off with the Tao of the Day.
I don’t know about you, but I’m dealing with multiple, multi-faceted issues. I need something inspirational, something informative, and yet multi-purpose enough so that I can self-diagnose at my own discretion. Often I get it only by reading about things that have nothing to do with me, then taking out the bits and pieces I can use. It’s harder for me to find answers from authors trying to speak to my specific problems, inevitably missing the mark in subtle ways for no other reason than that people are unique.
Can I learn more about relationships from Shakespeare or Dr. Phil? Can I learn more about strategy from Jack Welsh or Sun Tzu? The answer may lie in the multiple applications of “The Art of War,” in both war and business, and the multiple lessons in “Romeo and Juliet” regarding both love and the down-side of secret marriages.
It’s taken thousands of years for humanity to write what is considered the best literature in the world. That’s a lot of literature to consider, and a lot of time to consider it. So, if we’re looking for answers, why would we expect to find them by buying any old paperback written since 1987?
Lao Tzu might say…
…the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
And I say the good stuff still sells itself.
Excerpts have been taken from “Tao Te Ching: a New English Version,” translation by Stephen Mitchell, Harper & Row, 1988.
The Head Fake blog will feature an essay per week. The Head Fake is also featured monthly in The Bridge newspaper and online at www.readthebridge.info. You can e-mail Jay Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his web site at www.theheadfake.com.