Finding the Mean in Ordinary Life

One of the most important texts in Ruism is the Zhongyong. The title is usually translated as The Doctrine of the Mean, but a more accurate translation might be Finding the Mean in Ordinary Life.

On Ordinary Life

Some traditions point us away from everyday life by providing instructions on how to transcend our ordinary consciousness or attain a reward in the afterlife. Ruism, on the other hand, focuses relentlessly on our day-to-day lives in this world.

The goal of Ruism is to become a better person, right here and now. By bringing our best efforts to this task, the ordinariness of everyday life can be made sacred.

The Mean: Both Moral & Practical

Put simply, finding the mean is to do the right thing, in the right way, to the right degree, given the situation. Crucially, the “right thing” has both moral and practical dimensions.

Consider driving, for example. When we say that someone is a good driver, we’re saying that they are both skilled and considerate. If someone has the driving skills of Mario Andretti, but they use their abilities to cut people off and run red lights, we don’t say they are a good driver.

Likewise, if someone is considerate to other drivers and follows the rules of the road but they lack the ability to control their vehicle, we don’t say they are a good driver, either.

It is only the driver who has both skill and consideration who is considered a good driver.

The Mean: Neither Excessive Nor Deficient

What does it mean to do the right thing, in the right way, to the right degree, given the situation? It means acting in a way that is neither deficient or excessive, but just right for the circumstances.

Suppose, for example, your three year-old daughter was chasing a lost ball right into a busy road. It would be deficient to calmly explain the danger to the child and expect her to act accordingly. It would be excessive to run into traffic yourself and throw yourself in front of the nearest vehicle. The mean would be to pick her up and carry her out of harm’s way.

But the mean is always relative to the situation at hand. Suppose, for example, that your daughter was seventeen years-old instead of three. Rather than heedlessly running toward traffic chasing a ball, she was distracted by her smartphone and wandering too close to the road. What might be deficient in this case? What might be excessive? What would the mean response be?

The Challenge

As the previous examples illustrate, one of the challenges of carrying out the mean in ordinary life is that we have to figure the mean out “at speed.” We can’t possibly prepare a plan for every eventuality and situations change rapidly. We must learn to figure out the mean at the speed of life.

About the Author

Ben Butina, Ph.D.
Ben is the President and co-founder of the Ruist Association of America, Inc. and Friends from Afar, an English-speaking Ruist discussion group on Facebook. He's also the creator of Stone Chimes, a modern English adaptation of the Analects of Confucius.