“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.