Chapters 18 and 19 are practically a matched set – a before and after, problem and solution, bookending the same issue. It’s that dratted ego-centric monkey mind versus true Self stuff again.
The opening line from chapter 18:
When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.
Contrasted with first line of 19:
Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Now, goodness, wisdom, and the like are good things right? Why would you be concerned to see them arise, why would you try and toss them out? Because they are mental constructs. If you’ve ever seen the movie Footloose, or caught a good Christian Right rant on the TV you know that ideas of piety and holiness can do more harm than good. Ideas that have the power to suppress a soul rather than enliven it.
What Lao Tzu is trying to say here, is when you are no longer thinking and acting from that innate knowledge of true Self, you suddenly need rules and constructs to mimic what would otherwise arise naturally.
The more dignity is widely and freely available in a society, the less people want to be famous. — Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) January 31, 2013
I loved this tweet when it rolled through my stream, and it is a delightful little hint at these Taoist concepts. Dignity: that sense of self-respect, knowledge of your own innate value (dare I say a wee bit of being connected to the Tao?) fills something that in its absence, we seek in other ways. When we don’t have dignity all sorts of icky behaviour surfaces, not just the kind of ill mannered antics that get people on reality shows. Our own lack of self respect impairs our ability to respect and empathise with others and bullying, beatings, rapes, wars all stem from this.
This all generates a rather unpleasant society to live in and we try and compensate by having laws, rules of decorum, social constructs that say do this / don’t do that. The true problem is, we behave badly when we don’t have self-love, a deep and abiding sense of Self. I don’t murder people, not because there are laws and punishments against such things, but because I carry around enough empathy to be personally pained by the idea of someone else’s death (yes even the people who annoy the crap out of me).
A friend who was studying criminology was fascinated by a study that gave hard-core inmates a pet. A cat to share their cell with, something to keep them company, something to care for. It was an exercise in empathy, the understanding of, and responsibility for, another living being. In a system historically bent on punishing and de-humanizing “criminals” – those not like “us” those who were “bad” and had done wrong, here was a chance for them to relearn some humanity. Skill-building something that we assumed was innate, and irrevocably undeveloped in these individuals; the sad reality being, in most cases these inmates simple had nowhere in their lives ever seen this kind of behaviour modelled.
It was an effective experiment. I can remember my friend being most touched by the image of these inmates, upon their release, walking away with only what they could carry – and it was invariably their pet in a carrier in one hand, and the litterbox and sundry in the other. The most important possession in these men’s lives was the other little life they’d been sharing a cell with.
By being treated with some humanity they learned some humanity and became better citizens for it. When we toss out all these ideals of how people should behave and instead get on with the business of finding ways to connect with our innate humanity (that true Self that is selfless and ergo fearless and compassionate) we become a happier healthier society. What need for ideals of holiness and wisdom if everyone is walking around with dignity and self-respect?