On Being Individual

by Christopher Lovejoy on January 6, 2013

We live in a world where people shun versions of individuality that do not strive and thrive.

A consistently warm, kind, gentle, simple, unique, helpful, generous, loving manner, for example, cannot prevail for long in a world awash in expectations that demand things be done in no uncertain terms.

Maybe this is because selfish ambition and compensatory desire rule this world like nothing else does. Or maybe it’s because the Way does not, indeed can not, allow comfort and complacency to rule for long.

I’ve come to realize that unless I function within an existing (even if suffocating) institutional form or else win a popularity contest in the Me, Inc. sweepstakes, I will find it difficult if not impossible to survive.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 19

Be honest now: would you rather aspire to some version of sainthood that stifles your individuality or would you rather be who you are (truly), as you are (comfortably), wherever you are (happily)?

In light of this question, which do you prefer: adherence to compassionate wisdom in a fixed and rigid form or compassionate wisdom explored and expressed in the moment and realized in retrospect?

Do rigid institutional notions of morality and justice meet with your approval or would you rather be in a time and place where you can assess and address each and every apparent breach of morality and justice through the eyes of truth, patience, mercy, and/or compassion?

Are you truly comfortable and happy being a servant or slave to industry and profit? Or would you prefer an equitable sharing of abundant resources so that no one is left behind in the dust of time, curled up in the depths of despair beneath a rabid and robotic race against time?

These are just some of the questions that come to mind when I contemplate verse 19 of the Tao Te Ching.

Give up sainthood,
renounce wisdom;

it’ll be a hundred times
better for everyone.

Throw away
morality and justice

and people will do
the right thing.

Throw away
industry and profit

and there will be
no thieves.

All of these
are outward forms alone;

they are not sufficient
in and of themselves.

It’s more important
to see the simplicity,

to realize one’s nature,
to cast off selfishness
and temper desire.

Edited slightly by yours truly to enhance the flow of text

Ref: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao

Authenticity by way of simplicity makes selfish ambition and compensatory desire unnecessary, but who among us is strong enough and wise enough to realize and express such a true individuality?

My Impressions of the Verse

Verse 19 presents problems for the individual living in a society whose members are attached to various forms of conduct, knowing that these forms are inadequate for the sustenance of the individual alone.

The remedy is simple and simply stated, but by no means easy to attain or sustain: be true to yourself.

Give up sainthood,
renounce wisdom;
it’ll be a hundred times
better for everyone.

The imposition of a code of conduct on your person (from within or from without) is a form of discipline that can all too easily cut you off from the simplicity and rightness of your true nature.

The danger of following an imposed code of conduct is that the ensuing conformity will lead to tyranny. Someone somewhere will eventually be acknowledged and chosen as arbiter of the code.

Consequently, innovation is squashed even as individuality is squelched.

Throw away
morality and justice
and people will do
the right thing.

More explicitly, throw away restrictive, restricting forms of morality and justice to give people room to breathe so that they can apply kindness, mercy, and compassion as and when they see fit.

Throw away
industry and profit
and there will be
no thieves.

More explicitly, throw away constrictive, constricting forms of industry and profit so that people can be more generous and charitable in their caring and giving and sharing with those less fortunate.

All of these
are outward forms alone;
they are not sufficient
in and of themselves.

In other words, the forms themselves are meant to serve not smother.

It’s more important
to see the simplicity,
to realize one’s nature,
to cast off selfishness
and temper desire.

A self-righteous culture of entitlement running on the energy of narcissism simply cannot survive for long the loss of communion and community as chaos or conformity grow increasingly tyrannical.

Innovation withers and dies, old forms get recycled over and over again (same old, same old), and the narcissistic among us ironically lose their individuality, getting lost in clouds of mass distraction.

Implications for Personal Fulfillment

In this section, I’d like to elaborate on the final portion of verse 19.

Desire lies at the heart of personal fulfillment; without desire, there can be no fulfillment. Note well that in the last line of this verse, it says “temper desire;” it does not say “abandon desire.”

A fine and private distinction can be usefully made between desires that cultivate and desires that compensate, i.e., between “desires that explore, express, expand, and extend a love of who we are and what we do” and “desires that compensate for what we do not (or can not) have.”

Compensatory desires are ubiquitous; everyone everywhere has them, more or less, and they show up selfishly as obsessive, compulsive, addictive, regressive, impulsive, and aggressive. When I hear “temper desire,” I hear “temper desire that forever seeks to compensate.”

Desires that cultivate are expressions of a pure love of self and/or other, reflecting a pure, positive understanding and appreciation of who we are and what we love to do and do well.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, selfishness is an ambiguous term, presenting in discourse as positive or negative. If the fulfillment of a desire that serves to compensate is negatively selfish, then the fulfillment of a desire that serves to cultivate is positively soulfish.

In this light, “Cast off selfishness and temper desire” can be translated as “Cast off negative selfishness and temper obligatory, compensatory desire.” Such a translation saves the day for positive selfishness or soulfishness in the fulfillment of desires that cultivate.

Being positively selfish or soulfish to a point and a place where you can comfortably be, know, and love your cultivating desires, however, is by no means an easy feat to accomplish, especially in a culture of deprivation that does not or can not adequately encourage or support them.

You’re either faced with doing constant workarounds inside an oppressive institutional structure or you’re faced with the daunting task of building, maintaining, and promoting your own personal enterprise to support or encourage true desires in directions that inspire you.

Unless you can be obedient and cheerfully servile or unless you can be sufficiently smart, savvy, cynical, wise, charming, gracious, attractive, and/or well-connected, your only other alternatives are to win a lottery, inherit a fortune, go Hikikomori, or operate at your peril on the outskirts of society.

In the wake of these less than savory alternatives, personal fulfillment can mean many different things to many different people, depending on where they operate in the overall scheme of things.

I for one can recognize that it’s not all that easy “to see the simplicity, to realize one’s true nature, to cast off selfishness and temper desire” in a world where you’re pretty much left to your own devices.

The only consolation I can offer to those who feel trapped and oppressed by some version of this sad and sorry excuse for a world is to be as faithful to yourself as you can, while being as generous as you can with others, which might not be much, but at least it’s something.

On the back of this consolation, I offer this: be wholly present to your experience the best way you know how; be patient with your process of living, learning, and growing; and stay open and receptive to your sense of promise and possibility, even if no one cares to recognize it.

Next up: Say No to Striving?

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This post is one of many in an ongoing series that began here.

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