A Simple Lesson about Dignity

The Master said, “Do not be concerned about whether others know you; be concerned about whether or not you know others.” (Confucius, Analects, 1.16)

How often do we get flustered or disturbed when we find ourselves misunderstood by loved ones and colleagues? — how much emotional energy do we expend worrying about not being  understood or correcting misperceptions of ourselves? Confucius asks us here to redirect our focus. Since we really cannot avoid being misunderstood, given how different from us people are and how necessarily partial a view they have of us, and since even those closest to us don’t understand us, and since we often don’t even understand ourselves, why not concentrate rather on something we can do and that might be more interesting? Not expecting to be understood by anyone else, we can choose to direct our minds to understanding those around us. It will lead to more peace of mind and more delight in other people.

   A 94- year-old African-American woman I met once in Chicago, who had lived through all the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century, once expressed the same thought even better than Confucius. When I asked her about the frustrating persistence of racism and discrimination, she said simply: “Why should I care about how they see me? What I care about is how I see them.” Here is dignity, strength, and mental independence in two simple sentences — something worth practicing every day.


4 thoughts on “A Simple Lesson about Dignity”

  1. Krishna,

    This Analect is like the one that goes – “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others”.
    These two together with the one on Filial Piety – “In your filial duty to your parents it is okay to try to correct them if necessary. But if they do not agree with you, make sure that you still maintain your duty, respect and reverence for them and not remove yourself from them. Fulfil your filial duty (under heaven’s eyes) without complaining.” are my favourites.
    For these Analects teach you to destroy your idea of yourself as an Ego, as an individual, otherwise we will end up with a society of individuals rather than an abstract ideal of an interactive plural society, as a single unit of social relationships, like a bee hive or an ants’ nest. It is in the mutual giving that you have the mutual sharing and the mutual taking and thus this brings honour and blessing to both the giver and the taker.
    It is in these few Analects that Confucius ever got close to Taoist spiritual philosophy of selflessly giving or being accomodating – softly like water and rain or pervasive like sunshine.
    But conversely if it were not for the fact that one first had to do the learning and became an erudite scholar through Confucian studies of the Odes, which were more like Jewish Lamentations, you would not have the Taoist Master Zhuangzi making sense out of Lao Tze or much later the Zen Masters (through both Confucian studies and through studying Zhuangzi and other Taoist Masters) making sense out of Buddhism. In fact many Chinese refer to the Buddhist Temple as ‘The Way Place’ and even refer to Zen as ‘The Way’ and Zen Meditation as ‘The Meditation of the Tao’.
    It is all a fusion in the usual Chinese syncretic and eclectic sort of way of absorbing whatever that is good, like in Deng Hsiao Peng’s – ‘It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the rat’.


  2. Krishnan,
    Perchance I have strayed. The title was about ‘dignity’.
    On a previous occasion, you stated that the experts do not like to interpret the Analects contextually. I presume you mean in its historical context. But truly, ancient words or voices of wisdom, if they are to be relevant as a living antiquity, as living words of wisdom, they should be interpreted contextually but in a living dynamic context, as if the wisdom words, i.e. if they matter and are like matter that have a living spirit, that they are hylozoistic.
    The stage setting and scenery and costumery might change but Romeo and Juliet recast in the modern context as The West Side Story should be seen and understood in the same living spirit.
    And it is also not in the living spirit of ancient wisdom, as in learning from history, as Confucius did of the glory days of the Duke of Zhou, for us to take each strand or thread of an analect as being singularly discrete and exclusive, as having a separate life and meaning of its own. It is like seeing WWI as started by a Serb assassinating an Austrian Duke or seeing WWII as started by Germany invading Poland! That would be ridiculous!
    It is when the different coloured threads of the Analects are interwoven into a tapestry that you see the entire tapestry as and in its living dynamic context. You have to interpret the colour of an individual thread, as a colour within a rainbow of colours, seeing it in the entire spectrum of things, seeing in the context of the spectrum.
    This particular analect here that you see suffused with self-dignity must also therefore be understood through an overview of the tapestry that is Confucius’s Doctrine of the Mean.
    So here self-dignity as in having a sense of honour, of self-esteem, of being able to hold one’s head high in public or in Chinese colloquial terms ‘can face the mirror’, is in or within the ‘mean’, i.e. a safe distance from self-pride and self-shame.
    When Confucius speaks of the ‘mean’, or mien if you like, metaphorically speaking of course, of the ‘superior man’ he is not talking of a statistical or mathematical mean. He is speaking in the metaphysical abstract like of a dance, like having a sense of time and place, sense of timing – knowing when to call or run as in poker, sense of having a clear logical mind – having a clear discernment of the brevity, urgency, demands or dictates of the situation and having sensibility as to the problem, the occasion and the company (all comprised in his idea or tenet of ‘rituals’).
    His concept of moral rectitude and righteousness and duty and forbearance he said was not invented by him but reflected in the nature which he also refers to allegorically as the ‘mean’. Thus his ‘superior man’ was not one who upheld the exemplary ideals steadfastly without fear or favour like a solid rock but one who is mindful and sensible and discerning (not having a ‘clouded mind’) and who had to be dynamic and animated like the flow of the Qi, like the bamboo swaying in the breeze, like water flowing through the natural waterways.
    But we should not mistaken the cypress trees for the ideal that is of the zephyr that is breezing through the cypress trees, just because we cannot see the zephyr and can only see the trees. To see the sun as the sun and the moon as the moon is not the same as in the Confucian sense of seeing the sun and the moon as the ‘mean’ i.e. that there is a sun and a moon in all worldly happenings and existence – and that is what the ‘mean’ is – the nature of things – the harmony of things. Words of Confucius are not his words of wisdom if they are not within the ‘mean’ in this sense, in his sense. It is not as if the words can speak for themselves. No! It must words as Confucius would have spoken it himself in his discourse about the Doctrine of the Mean!
    In Confucian ‘mean’ the Western concept that all men are born equal is absolutely weird and ridiculous – as my father would have said, we are all sorts of astrological animals in men, we are not born equal. But for Confucius – to achieve equality out of inequality, attain harmony out of chaos, you need equal opportunity to self-betterment, equal access to education and learning and common rituals, so that every individual can better himself or herself and is also be entitled to peace, stability, harmony and law and order if he deported himself accordingly to rituals.


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    1. I’ll reply more fully to this later, Vince. The scholars actually care maybe too much for the context! The problem is that nearly all of this context is constructed through interpreting, and scholars disagree — e.g., Mengzi disagrees with Xunzi, Zhu Xi with Wang Yangming. Ultimately we have to go back to interpreting what the text actually says first — and see what possibilities there are. It is possible for an ENTIRE tradition to be wrong about one of its founders. Moreover, when one explains A with recourse to B, the presupposition is that B is less problematic than A — and with most classics, recourse to historical context is always problematic. All the scholars disagree. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a right view, just that context is always very tricky. Nearly always a great book teaches us how to read itself. I’m not in the least disagreeing with your interpretation — a wonderfully imaginative synthesis! — but just voicing why I am skeptical about recourse to historical contexts when reading great works. Not that one doesn’t need some historical knowledge and cultural sensitivity — just that those things don’t account for everything. All great works to a large degree stand outside their time and place; that is why they can be re-read and re-visioned across oceans and millennia!


  3. Krishnan,
    You are right.
    I am of course interpreting from my actual personal experience or practice as a Chinese continuing to follow Confucian precepts and traditions as handed down to me in my family. To me it is not purely an academic intellectual philosophical discussion as such but a living culture and tradition. It is a living thing. It is integral to my life!
    It is not a matter of personal choice whether I should practise Confucianism but the reality is that I have to fulfil my Filial Piety obligations.
    And because of my Filial Piety obligations, if I have to disobey any Christian or other religious creed, I would; because as Confucius would put it, my parents sacrificed their life for me, I in return must sacrifice my life for them.
    If Christ died for the world, so be it, but I am not the world. The world can sacrifice itself to God, but I personally must first sacrifice myself to my parents. Necessity begins at home.


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