My latest article at MercatorNet is inspired by the fortuitous coincidence of Valentine’s Day and the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday, a day of penance and the beginning of the penitential season of Lent:
The flip side of humiliating oneself with public acts of penance is that we no longer have much of a stake in the prestige and demands of social status.
The worldly values that make sackcloth and ashes humiliating and therefore penant are themselves abjured when we remember who and what we truly are.
Worldly humiliation becomes genuine humility, reflected even in the Latin root of the word humble, from humus meaning ‘earth’ or ‘soil’.
True humility lies in knowing that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. All our worldly affairs, striving, and accomplishments, but also our troubles, fears and dilemmas are but dust.
But this would still be a bit of a downer if that was all there was to life. Our relationships might all be dust, but that doesn’t mean your romantic dinner should turn to ashes in your mouth.
The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.
Sometimes when reading the Yi Jing or Confucian books, we can forget that the “superior man” is not recognised as such by our society or culture.
The Daoist classics offer a more colourful account of the sage or the man of virtue as someone who stands apart from society and culture, someone whose words and actions are as likely to bemuse or confuse as they are to enlighten.
In emulating the “uncarved block” Laozi describes himself as seemingly inferior to others:
All men, indeed, are wreathed in smiles,
As though feasting after the Great Sacrifice,
As though going up to the Spring Carnival.
I alone am inert, like a child that has not yet given sign;
Like an infant that has not yet smiled.
I droop and drift, as though I belonged nowhere.
All men have enough and to spare;
I alone seem to have lost everything.
Mine is indeed the mind of a very idiot,
So dull am I.
The world is full of people that shine;
I alone am dark.
They look lively and self-assured;
I alone depressed.
(I seem unsettled as the ocean;
Blown adrift, never brought to a stop.)
All men can be put to some use;
I alone am intractable and boorish.
His description is reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s “use of what is useless”, and we find it echoing again in the theme of this blog – the superior man is not a utensil.
To be interested in this stuff, to take it seriously, let alone to try to practice it, is to invest in something profoundly anti-social and counter-cultural, at least as our society and culture currently stand. Like choosing poverty over wealth, low status over high, solitude over popularity.
Understanding the transitory in the light of the eternity of the end sounds well and good until you realise that “the transitory” includes everything that occupies and demands our attention in nearly every moment of ordinary life.
Who wants to be dull, dark and depressed? Who wants to be intractable and boorish? But that’s what remains when your desire for the transitory begins to fade.