Which is nearer,
name or self?
Which is dearer,
self or worth?
Which gives more pain,
loss or gain?
All you grasp will be thrown away.
All you hoard will be utterly lost.
Contentment keeps disgrace away.
Restraint keeps you out of danger
so you can go on for a long, long time.
These are not such strange questions or ideas. They exist in just about every ideology. These are questions about what we value in life and what we wish to have. Do we want a long life of contentment, or do we want a life of acquisition?
The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive, but it seems that they often are.
And so it’s not strange that the Tao Te Ching would ask these questions or even make a value judgment against personal fortune. It’s a commonly held belief across cultures, I think, that those with great monetary wealth are often lacking in some other way. Typically, we’d say this is a spiritual lack, but I tend to shy away from such statements. And so I think that contentment is perhaps the better word here.
Because that’s often at the heart of these poems: the search for contentment. To be content with being an outsider, an idiosyncratic thinker. We lead and teach through demonstration. We shun or at least do not strive for wealth or fame or recognition. Rather, the Tao asks us to find peace, harmony with ourselves. Often the way to get there is by stepping into the rhythm of the world, following the Way, listening to the Tao that is all things.
Wealth is what you make it, and it needn’t be money. But if all you seek is recognition, wealth, power, you will find it fleeting, never satiating, and absent once our lives extinguish.