Cunning and Caring

by Christopher Lovejoy on November 24, 2013

The opposite of caring is not not caring; the opposite of caring is cunning.

What is cunning? Is it necessarily negative? Can it also be positive? What is caring in relation to cunning? Later in this post, I will explore more fully the latter question.

Cunning …

As an adjective, this word evokes images of predators stalking their prey, but as a noun, it actually carries a positive connotation. In the days of yore, cunning meant “knowledge and learning” or “magic art” (magical art? the art of magic?). Today, cunning implies the application of dexterous skill and subtlety (when devising, inventing, or executing) or the display of keen insight, without artful deceit.

By way of contrast, let us look at caring by way of care.

Curiously, care (as a noun) is loaded with not-so-positive or neutral connotations: a suffering of mind (grief), a disquieted state of mind (apprehension, uncertainty, responsibility), a cause for such disquiet, and last but not least, painstaking and watchful attention. Even more curious, care is defined in the same breath as concern, solicitude, anxiety, and worry, all of which mean a troubled or engrossed state of mind (or the thing that causes this).

Where concern implies a troubled state of mind because of personal interest, relation, or affection (e.g., crime in the neighbourhood caused the neighbours concern), and where solicitude implies great concern and connotes either thoughtful or hovering attentiveness toward another (e.g., maternal solicitude), and where anxiety stresses anguished uncertainty or fear of misfortune or failure (e.g., plagued by anxiety and self-doubt), and where worry suggests fretting over matters that may or may not be the real cause for anxiety (e.g., financial worries), care implies oppression of the mind weighed down by responsibility or disquieted by apprehension (e.g., a face worn by years of care).

Care, however, does have a clear positive connotation: “positive regard coming from desire or esteem”. One might wonder: if love rules the universe through law, where does caring and cunning come into play? Does obedience to law necessitate both a positive sense of caring and a positive sense of cunning?

Without positively motivated cunning, the most caring people in the world are vulnerable to weakness and stupidity, vulnerable to being seen as weak and stupid, vulnerable to being made to look weak and stupid, at least when they stand alone, which is likely hardly ever, given how caring they are, but then, people in possession of a positive sense of cunning who are willing and able to cover for those without such cunning doesn’t change the fact that caring people without positively motivated cunning are vulnerable to all manner of exploitation. Anyone with a modicum of positive cunning knows this to be true, even if they never go around expressing this knowing.

As far as I can see, being positively cunning with respect to positive caring is not being cynical, just as being cynical is not being positively cunning with respect to positive caring.

It would be lovely if no one had to be positively cunning with strangers and acquaintances (or even loved ones), but we don’t (yet?) live in that kind of world, as some acts of positive caring require the backing of some acts of positive cunning.

With these thoughts in mind, let us now allow the Tao Te Ching to speak of caring and cunning.

Tao Te Ching Verse 65

If being both wise and caring is positively cunning on occasion, then being positively cunning on occasion is being cunning for a good reason with respect to caring, in support of caring.

If making a show of being cunning is clever, then being cunning for the sake of caring can never be seen as clever.

The ancient ones
were simple-hearted
and blended with
the common people.
They did not shine forth, and
they did not rule with cleverness,
and so the nation was blessed.

When they think
they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know
that they do not know,
people can find their own way.

Not using cunning
to govern a country
is good fortune
for the country.
The simplest pattern
is the clearest.
Content with
an ordinary life,
you can show all people
the way back
to their own true nature.

Edited slightly by yours truly to enhance the flow of text

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

Would you rather be clever (as a show of cunning) or would you rather be caring? More precisely still, would you rather be seen as clever or, with appropriate cunning, would you rather care?

My Impressions of the Verse

If you’re at all plugged into the current zeitgeist, you’ll read the words in verse 65 and find them strange. I mean, who wants to live an ordinary life? Who wishes to be (merely) simple-hearted?

The ancient ones
were simple-hearted
and blended with
the common people.
They did not shine forth, and
they did not rule with cleverness,
and so the nation was blessed.

To be simple-hearted is to be caring without any intention of being cunning, positive or negative.

I can imagine that the ancient ones of Lemuria were simple-hearted and blended with the common people because the civilization of Lemuria had fully matured before the global cataclysm.

More explicitly, the ancient ones of Lemuria had no need of shining, no need of cunning with dramatic shows of cleverness consumed by the compulsion for personal gain or personal fame.

One can easily imagine a sovereign nation blessed with good fortune in the absence of cunning characterized by artful deceit on the part of those who would represent the nation’s interests.

This would be a nation blessed by an absence of such cunning: “those who live and speak truth, and are heard to live and speak truth, need not and shall not suffer or die.”

When they think
they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know
that they do not know,
people can find their own way.

These words would have us believe that who those guide least guide best, but only if they know who they are. The invitation here is to invite others to entertain what they do not yet know.

This portion of the verse reminds me of a quote from Benjamin Franklin, which is based on ancient chinese wisdom: tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; involve me and I learn.

Not using cunning
to govern a country
is good fortune
for the country.
The simplest pattern
is the clearest.
Content with
an ordinary life,
you can show all people
the way back
to their own true nature.

More broadly still, not using cunning (with artful deceit and with questionable ways, means, or methods) to govern the affairs of others is good fortune for those being so governed.

Here, a distinction arises: using cunning for the sake of getting and gaining by devious means versus being positively cunning for the sake of loving and caring, serving and protecting.

But living simple-heartedly and being content with an ordinary life sound boring to many Westerners.

Might it be possible to live an extraordinary life and still be in touch with yourself fully enough so as to serve as a fine example to those who would have need of returning to their true natures?

Implications for Personal Fulfillment

As a matter of priorities in the course of living a life, a positive posture of “cunning first, caring second” looks and feels very different from a positive posture of “caring first, cunning second.”

As living and serving in tune with the Tao and the Tao alone is the supreme virtue, then perhaps a case could be made for being fluid and flexible enough to adopt either one or the other posture, depending on the situation or circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Admittedly, adopting this strategy would, in and of itself, be an act of positive cunning.

On the other hand, being simple-hearted and living simple-heartedly is synonymous with being humble and living humbly without any form of cunning. Unfortunately, “being humble” and “living humbly” are associated in the minds of many with “being lowly” and “living low”.

And yet, we also recognize, although rare, true humility in those with considerable wealth, status, and influence. The many acts of positive cunning that got them to where they are have been skillfully and artfully absorbed and balanced by their many acts of positive caring.

What might we learn from these rare ones? Positively speaking, what might they teach us about caring in relation to cunning?

In the spirit of “being anybody I choose to be”, I’ll respond to this question from the point of view of someone who exerts considerable authority, of someone who wields considerable influence. Here is my opportunity to play pretend, without being pretentious, while moving pretense (“I assume”) into presence (“I am”). For this movement, I need no setting by which to occupy a position in a place where I can allow myself to be true, wise, and free, and to be, have, and do whatever it is I will or desire. In other words, “wherever I go, there I am”. I need not follow anyone’s path. The path I follow is the path I create. I let it be even as I make it so; I make it so even as I let it be. I am positively caring even as I am positively cunning; I am positively cunning even as I am positively caring.

Ideally, my individual process of learning and growing is organic and spontaneous, fluid and flexible, effortless and easy, and the path I leave behind me is for no one else to find or follow. At the core of my being, I am One. I am as I am wherever I am, just so long as I breathe and receive, let it be and let it go. The moment I switch from passive to active, from receptive to assertive, from reflective to impulsive, from responsive to reactive, is the moment I presume to know better than the One and make it so. In this moment, separation replaces integration. In my experience of separation from the One, from myself, and from others, I find the energy of cunning.

When cunning proves to be too much for me, even if positively motivated (and I do it too often or too intensely), I have recourse to caring positively; I have recourse to integration through unity with the One by “letting go and letting God”.

I stop, I breathe, I receive, I smile.

And when I have finally grown weary of positive cunning, having lost my appetite for it, or when I have finally and truly exhausted my positive use of it, I am ready to lead those who can take the lead.

I am ready to step into my power, ready to stand above others without being a burden to others, ready to face others without being a threat to others, ready, willing, and able to follow the lead of others.

Next up: Leading by Serving (Living by Emulating the Sea)

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

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