Home Truths

“How fortunate I am! If I should make a mistake, others are sure to inform me.” (Analects, 7.31, tr.Slingerland)

Whenever I am having one of those “bad days” when everyone around me seems determined to unload painful home-truths in my face, I deliberately bring to mind this sentence of Confucius as balm for my cuts. As deliciously ironic as it is, such that I have wanted it embossed on my office door as daily warning and therapy, it also reminds me that deep in my heart I actually want to be surrounded by eagle-eyed critics who will point out if I am performing beneath my own standards.

   The core of the Confucian way is daily self-reflection: clear resolutions, assiduously put into practice, and then reviewed. The extremely earnest student Zeng puts it like this:

“Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?” (1.4)

Carefully following each of these three criteria will result in the cultivation of an impressive human being — one that you would want as a colleague, boss, subordinate, governor, and even family member. While Zeng himself often seems to lack the warmth of heart necessary to balance and animate these principles of behavior, what he is giving us here are three standards according to which we can pragmatically evaluate our performance and articulate what we need to do next. Becoming a better human being involves practice, not just aspiration.

   But it is very hard to evaluate ourselves. Can we really see our own faults? It is remarkable how even good human beings can be unaware of serious problems in their behavior towards others — flaws of ego that can grate on their loved ones, and make their colleagues hate them. Even Confucius occasionally despairs of the possibility of self-reflection:

The Master said, “I should just give up! I have yet to meet someone who is able to perceive his own faults and then take himself to task inwardly.” (5.31)
   This is why it is a wonderful thing that we have an abundance of people who can see all our errors and faults, and who will inevitably point them out to us. It is just as wonderful as the fact that “nothing in the universe is hidden,” that our virtues and vices are all manifest, and that sooner or later people pick up everything about us. Confucius remarks elsewhere, Where can we hide, where can we hide? Life may leave us feeling raw and vulnerable, but in the end we should be grateful for all those critics and enemies — because they reveal to us what we cannot see for ourselves.


2 thoughts on “Home Truths”

  1. Krishna,

    This is a timely Analect to look at.

    It teaches us not to pour through the Analects and look at each with a magnifying glass, for some hidden esoteric detail and presuming that every Analect is of the same vein, colour or tenor or connotation.

    Confucius is not Lao Tze. When we study Taoism we hope to reach the exalted heights of the Immortals. But Confucius did not pretend to be other than a mere mortal.

    With Confucius rituals were rituals and not dependent on another’s judgement or one’s own self judgment. In fact Confucius would only say that if you are obeisant and compliant with rituals what is there for another or yourself to set the standard of a ‘superior man’, for that is a matter of heaven or Mother Nature. The proof is in the pudding, in the result, in the effect, not in the mind, not in the judgment of any one particular individual or more.

    Here Confucius was being sarcastic. He made a snide remark that had a pointed poisonous meaning. Only somebody higher than him in social rank would have dared to criticise him or pretend to have the audacity to point out his mistakes. Confucius is more of less saying that he was glad he was ‘meek’ or powerless like a ‘child’ or is a nobody, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. He was saying that there were people who thought that they were clever by birthright instead of through learning. So, he was not saying that he was open to criticism by all at large at all in this instance but that the people who saw mistakes in him were possibly morons, idiots and fools. He was only open to criticism by people who were learned and erudite like he was. In other words, this Analect should be interpreted as Confucius not suffering fools readily.



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