Fourteen years! For fourteen years, Zilu had been following this dreamer on his fool’s errand! And for what? To die like a dog on the side of the road!? Would his corpse rot in this hell-hole, without even a relative nearby to bury it?
It was different in the beginning, of course. Back then, Zilu was eager to leave his home and follow his teacher, Kongzi, west to the state of Wei. He was sure that the powers-that-be in Wei would recognize Kongzi’s genius and hire him immediately. Zilu himself would work alongside Kongzi, helping him implement his glorious vision of a virtuous government. But things didn’t work out that way in Wei. No matter. They would try again. They went south to the state of Song. Things didn’t work out there, either. They tried again and again, and failed again and again. They were insulted. They were ignored. They were attacked. And now, finally, they were starving.
Kongzi taught endlessly about the path of the “noble person,” but where did this path end? In a ditch! Kongzi talked about “taking a stand,” but here he was, too weak from starvation to even stand up on his own two legs. Zilu, full of resentment, turned to his teacher and asked, “Does a noble person find himself in circumstances like these?”
Kongzi calmly replied, “Yes, of course. But only the small person can’t endure them.”
As I write these words, you may find yourself feeling a bit like Zilu. A global pandemic is raging outside your front door, for which there is currently no vaccine and no cure. Thousands have already died and no one knows how many more will perish before it all ends. All around you, people are isolated in their homes, you’ve lost track of how many times the stock markets have crashed, and when you look for supplies in the local supermarket, you find nothing but empty shelves. In the face of this, what use is all this talk about being a “noble person?” What can these stuffy old Chinese sayings possibly offer us right now?
As it turns out, quite a bit.
Ruism is not a tradition founded by men who retreated to mountain-top caves to transcend the suffering of this world through solitary meditation. Ruism was founded by the men who stayed in the village. Kongzi, Mengzi, Xunzi, and other Ru teachers and thinkers lived through war, famine, and social disorder. If they found themselves in our world, they wouldn’t be shocked–they would nod in solemn recognition. They developed their teaching for people like us living in times like these. So what do they have to tell us?
One of the key messages of Ruism is to “actualize the Mean,” at all times, even during times of crisis. But what is the Mean? It’s doing the right thing, in the right way, to the right degree, given the circumstances. It’s avoiding deficiency on one hand and excess on the other. Those acting with deficiency are easy to spot these days. They are continuing on with their lives as if nothing has changed. They gather in bars and restaurants. They complain about the cancellation of concerts, vacations, and sporting events. They criticize anyone who takes precautions as “alarmist” Those acting with excess are equally obvious: they are the people hoarding supplies and spreading unsubstantiated rumors.
So what is the Mean? Circumstances are changing so quickly that I hesitate to discuss it. As I write these words, the Mean seems to be something like this: slow down the transmission of the virus by practicing good hygiene and social distancing; buy a reasonable amount of supplies to care for your family; encourage others to do the same. (Up-to-date information can be found at coronavirus.gov).
If the Mean is so obvious, why are so many people acting in deficiency and excess? One possible explanation is a lack of reciprocity, a principle that Kongzi offers as a “single principle that can guide our actions throughout life.” Reciprocity is not imposing on others what you would not want them to impose on you. It requires us to put ourselves in the place of others and act in their best interests as well as your own. Those who are acting in excess by hoarding goods are imposing hardships on others by depriving them of necessary supplies. They are unable or unwilling to put themselves in the place of their neighbors. Those who are acting in deficiency by not changing their behavior are imposing hardships on other by speeding the transmission of the disease. Since they are relatively young and healthy, they feel that they are in no serious danger from the virus. They are unable or unwilling to place themselves in the place of the old or sick who may die from it.
But why are so many otherwise normal and decent people acting in deficiency or excess? They are not, after all, sociopaths. They are our friends, family members, and co-workers. What explains their obstinate or reckless behavior? Some, no doubt, are simply uninformed or misinformed, but this can’t possibly be the complete explanation. Another potential explanation can be found in the commentary to the Great Learning: “If a man be under the influence of passion he will be incorrect in his conduct. He will be the same, if he is under the influence of terror, or under the influence of fond regard, or under that of sorrow and distress. When the mind is not present, we look and do not see; we hear and do not understand; we eat and do not know the taste of what we eat.” In other words, when we’re carried away by strong emotions–fear or terror, for example–we aren’t thinking clearly. As a result, we make bad decisions.
This isn’t worth knowing only as an explanation for the conduct of others, however. Instead, we should use this information to guide our own conduct. We must recognize that we are also vulnerable to the destructive power of the passions. We are all capable of “losing our heads” in times of crisis and being swept away by powerful emotions. Our best defense is as ordinary as it is difficult: remain calm.
- Focus your thoughts and actions on what is within your control. The virus itself, the actions of governments, and the development of vaccines and treatments are, for the most part, beyond our control. Our own actions and, to some degree, our own thoughts, are in our control. Don’t ruminate on things that you can’t hope to influence. Instead, focus all your energy on what you can do to make things better.
- Recognize that the elderly and sick are those who are most endangered by this disease. Every one of them is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, or friend. Extend your natural feelings of love for your own friends and family to the friends and family of others. Choose your behavior, accordingly, in light of what would benefit the most vulnerable.
- You probably have more influence on others than you realize. Even when you feel overwhelmed, focus on setting a good example for others by acting calmly, doing the right thing, and sharing reliable information.
- When we feel overwhelmed, we tend to turn inward. Instead of retreating into yourself, reach out and show your concern for your family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Remind yourself of all the roles you play in life and determine to carry them out to the best of your ability under the circumstances.
- As opportunity affords, practice quiet-sitting.
- To whatever extent possible, continue your practice of daily learning, journaling, and ritual practice.
When you feel like Zilu, remember that you always have the obligation to be a good person, regardless of circumstances. When you’re fully engaged in the work of humaneness, you will have less “mental bandwidth” available for panic and distress.
Doctrine of the Mean
- “The noble person embodies the course of the Mean. The small person acts contrary to the course of the Mean.”
- “The knowing go beyond it, and the stupid do not come up to it.” (Kongzi)
- “The noble person does what is proper to the station in which he is–he does not desire to go beyond this … in a position of sorrow and difficulty, he does what is proper to a position of sorrow and difficulty.”
- Zigong asked, “Is there a single principle that can guide our actions throughout life?” Confucius replied, “Wouldn’t that be reciprocity? Don’t impose on others what you wouldn’t want them to impose on you.” (15.24)
- Confucius said, “You should always be mindful of your parents’ ages. It’s a cause of both joy and anxiety.” (4.21)
- “Isn’t filiality and respect for parents and elders the root of humaneness?” (1.2, Youzi)
- “If a noble person abandons humaneness, how can they be worthy of being called a noble person? A noble person doesn’t abandon humaneness, even for the space of a meal. A noble person clings to humaneness, even in times of rushing or crisis.” (Analects 4.5, Kongzi)
- Confucius said, “The noble person is self-possessed and relaxed. The small person is always worried.” (Analects, 7.37)
- Confucius said, “The Way of a noble person has three points that I haven’t achieved: humaneness without anxiety, wisdom without doubts, and courage without fear.” Zigong said, “You’ve just described yourself.” (Analects, 14.28)
- “To be refined in purpose, rich in virtuous action, and clear in understanding; to live in the present and remember the past—these are things which are within your own power. Therefore the gentleman cherishes what is within his power and does not long for what is within the power of Heaven alone. The petty man, however, puts aside what is within his power and longs for what is within the power of Heaven. Because the gentleman cherishes what is within his power and does not long for what is within Heaven’s power, he goes forward day by day. Because the petty man sets aside what is within his power and longs for what is within Heaven’s power, he goes backward day by day. The same cause impels the gentleman forward day by day, and the petty man backward. What separates the two originates in this one point alone.” (Xunzi, Hutton)
The Great Learning
- “The cultivation of the person depends on rectifying the mind may be thus illustrated:-If a man be under the influence of passion he will be incorrect in his conduct. He will be the same, if he is under the influence of terror, or under the influence of fond regard, or under that of sorrow and distress. When the mind is not present, we look and do not see; we hear and do not understand; we eat and do not know the taste of what we eat. This is what is meant by saying that the cultivation of the person depends on the rectifying of the mind.” Commentary of the Philosopher Tsang