Grasping and yet full of, not in harmony with oneself;
Surmising and yet of keen spirit, cannot long protect.
Treasures fill a room, none can keep;
Wealth and pride, one’s gift to one’s blame.
Meritorious deeds that satisfy oneself recede;
This is the way of nature.
Limits: Translations, even the nearly literal one above, lose some of the original meaning due to the cultural context of contemporary words. Studying the numerous synonym-like meanings of the Chinese characters in the Word-for-Word translation mitigates this. (Click graphic at right for on-line Word-for-Word.)
Chapter of the Month
Archive: Characters and past commentary
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Grasping and yet full of, not in harmony with oneself hints at the result of our ideals getting ahead of reality. Reality is the full of, and the grasping is setting our sights on ideals and expectations. This happens when we don’t appreciate what we have, and that is completely natural. Appreciation is NOT innate. Just think, if appreciation was an evolved trait — an instinct — we would appreciate what we have TOO MUCH, and have less incentive to get out there and hunt and gather as nature intends us to do.
One might say that we no longer need to hunt and gathers; we can get what we want at the store. Ha! Our biology doesn’t know that. We are biologically hunt and gatherers and will always be unless evolution changes that. When I think about the chances of that, I come up with a big fat zero. All life hunts and gathers in some way for survival. Hunting and gathering are a good definition for life itself!
In the civilized circumstances in which we find ourselves, our hunt and gathering instinct merely plays out in other ways. Specifically here, grasping after idealistic expectations is just a surrogate for the hunt and gather instinct. We chase our dreams, yet dreams have no grounding; this makes not in harmony with oneself all too easy to occur. (See The Tradeoff for background)
Surmising and yet of keen spirit, cannot long protect. I see this directly connected to chapter 71’s, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease along with chapter 16’s, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results. Surmising (guessing, assuming, inferring), and having a lot of enthusiasm to act on your assumptions is folly — uniquely human folly. Chapter 70 warns us of this trap, and the way to sidestep much of it.
Our words are very easy to know, very easy to do.
Under heaven none can know, none can do.
Speech has its faction, involvement has its sovereign.
Man alone is without knowing, and because of this I don’t know.
Knowing self is rare, following self is noble.
Because of this, the sage wears coarse cloth and yearns for noble character.
The last line of chapter 70 resonates with the next two lines of this chapter: Treasures fill a room, none can keep; Wealth and pride, one’s gift to one’s blame. Valuing and seeking wealth and pride are sophisticated forms of hunting and gathering. The difference lies in the ‘prey’. The disconnection we feel drives an urge to ‘be somebody’. This expectation turns us into becoming our own ‘prey’.
Deep social connection instills a genuine sense of ‘I am somebody’ security. The hierarchical nature of civilization makes that kind of intimate organic egalitarian connection virtually impossible; especially at the depth our ancestors experienced pre agriculture. The treasures, wealth, and pride are simply substitutes. These don’t truly work, they only promise to in our expectations — our dreams. Once achieved, we are left as empty and alone as ever. That is why Wealth and pride, [are] one’s gift to one’s blame. We can’t help but end this futile race with some sense of guilt and self-blame. Self-blame because we chased our expectations ‘down the rabbit hole’.
Meritorious deeds that satisfy oneself recede. What are meritorious deeds? Doesn’t all this come back to the hierarchical urge ‘to be somebody’? In life, the niche we seek and achieve in whatever hierarchy can never be secure. This is the way of nature. This is why civilization’s hierarchical nature always leaves us feeling isolated. Chapter 39 seems to hint at this… This, and so rulers call themselves solitary, scant, pathetic.
Finally, this brings me to chapter 22. D.C. Lau puts it clearly:
He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous;
He does not consider himself right, and so is illustrious;
He does not brag, and so has merit;
He does not boast, and so endures.
Word for Word requires a little more pondering perhaps.
He does not see his self for he is honest;
he does not exist for he is clear;
He does not attack himself for he has merit;
he is not self important for he endures.
Interestingly and importantly, D.C. Lau’s translation puts the cart before the horse, so to speak, while the more literal less so, if at all. The difference lies between D.C. Lau’s “and so is” and the literal’s “for”. “And so it” points the arrow of causation forward, i.e., “… does not drag, and so[as a result] …”. Conversely, “for” points an arrow of effect backward, i.e., “… not attack himself, for [because]…”.
The literal invites a symptoms point of view. Here, a lack of feeling merit drives one to brag, or attack himself (or others). A lack of feeling deeply connected and secure creates a void that drives us to grasp and fill up with wealth, merit, pride, treasures, righteousness, and so on. Note: treasures are not only material things, like gold, but frankly anything one values: friends, reputations, knowledge, status, etc. We treasure anything that promises to fill the void within, even though we know the promises are empty. As we say, “Money doesn’t buy happiness” or as the first lines of chapter 70 say, Our words are very easy to know, very easy to do. Under heaven none can know, none can do.
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