three treasures

Everybody says my was is great
but improbable.

All greatness
is improbable.
What’s probable
is tedious and petty.

I have three treasures.
I keep and treasure them.

The first, mercy,
the second, moderation,
the third, modesty.
If you’re merciful you can be brave,
if you’re moderate you can be generous,
and if you don’t presume to lead
you can lead the high and mighty.

But to be brave without compassion,
or generous without self-restraint,
or to take the lead,
is fatal.

Compassion wins the battle
and holds the fort;
it is the bulwark set
around those heaven helps.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The first two verses of this chapter are a joy to me.

The three final verses are closely connected in thought to the next two chapters, which may be read as a single meditation on mercy, moderation, and modesty, on the use of strength, on victory and defeat.

Lao Tzu does this often in the Tao Te Ching, as we’ve already seen. Sequences of poems come as almost a single thought, and then the text wanders on to new topics, new ideas, or reiterates previous ideas in new ways.

The first two stanzas are Lao Tzu dealing with his own critics. With his own optimism and childlike hopefulness.

Because these are two things intrinsic to the Tao Te Ching. Optimism and hope, even when it seems like naivety.

What’s a life worth without hope?

I’m certainly not an optimist, but I try to remain hopeful, difficult as it is. I think hope is important. In creating a new future, we must first imagine one that’s better than today. This is why we need artists and holy fools. You can’t imagine a better tomorrow without hope, without a certain fiendish level of optimism.

We are victims of history and we must carry history with us, but history is also a burden that keeps us from rising out of our present day calamities.

So try to be hopeful today.

Think about mercy, compassion, and moderation.

The sun is shining, though it’s cold. And I think that’s as good a metaphor for those first two stanzas as I’m likely to get.

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