On Being Individual

by Christopher Lovejoy on January 6, 2013

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

A consistently warm, kind, gentle, simple, unique, helpful, generous, loving manner, for example, cannot subsist for long in a world awash in expectations that demand doing things in certain ways.

Perhaps this is because the marriage of negatively selfish ambition and compensatory desire rule this world like nothing else. Or perhaps this is because the Way does not allow complacency to rule.

Unless you function effectively within an existing (even if suffocating) institutional form or win a popularity contest in the Me, Inc. sweepstakes, you’ll likely find it difficult if not impossible to thrive.

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)?

Which do you prefer: adherence to wisdom in a fixed and rigid form or wisdom expressed in the moment and realized in retrospect?

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

Are you comfortable being a slave to industry and profit or do you prefer an equitable sharing of abundant resources so that no one is left behind, curled up in the dust 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 negatively selfish ambition and compensatory desire unnecessary, but who among us are strong enough and wise enough to realize and express true individuality?

My Impressions of the Verse

Verse 19 presents problems for the individual living in a society whose members are infected by attached to various forms of conduct, knowing all too well 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 narcissism cannot long survive the loss of community as chaos or conformity grows 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 doesn’t say “abandon desire”.

A distinction can be made between desires that cultivate and desires that compensate: between “desires that express a love of who you are and what you love to do” and “desires that seek to compensate for what you do not (or cannot) have”.

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

Desires that cultivate are pure expressions of love, reflecting pure, positive focus and appreciation for who you are and what you love to do.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, selfishness is ambiguous, presenting as positive or negative. If the fulfillment of compensatory desires is negatively selfish, then the fulfillment of cultivating desires is positively selfish.

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

Being positively selfish to a point where you can be, know, and love your cultivating desires, however, is not an easy feat to accomplish, especially in a culture of deprivation that does not or cannot adequately encourage or support it.

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 structure to adequately encourage and support your true desires.

Unless you’re sufficiently obedient and cheerfully servile or adequately strong, smart, savvy, cynical, wise, charming, gracious, connected, and/or attractive, you’re only other alternatives are to win a lottery, inherit a fortune, stay inside the nest, or operate on the outskirts of society.

Thus, personal fulfillment means different things to different people, depending on where you operate in the overall scheme of things.

I for one recognize that it’s not at all 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 a 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.

Be present to your experience the best way you know how, be patient with your process of living, learning, and growing, and stay open to your sense of promise and possibility, even if no one cares to recognize it.

One more thing: consider reading the next post in this series.

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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