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Could the Wisdom of Ancient Chinese Thinkers Help Our Current Political Climate?

Stars and Confucius

Could the Wisdom of Ancient Chinese Thinkers Help Our Current Political Climate?

I recently came across an interesting article on LinkedIn: The Importance of Breaking Free of…Yourself. It was adapted from a new book published by Simon & Schuster entitled The Path, written by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. Michael is a popular professor at Harvard. While the article was targeted at new college grads and young professionals rather than a middle aged male, it resonated with me on several levels.

First, the idea of being open and even intentionally seeking ideas and people outside our usual beliefs and experience is a practice that I’ve found wonderfully educational and spiritually nourishing. Especially the last several years as I’ve stumbled across opportunities or sought such experiences and spaces with more intention.

Some of this has come from a couple of groups I help facilitate called Think Again and Faith Again. But some of my most meaningful and heart connecting experiences have been as I’ve engaged in Living Room Conversations in my home and in local Village Square events that I’ve participated in. These forums have given me and others the opportunity, to, as the authors of this article encourage:

“…instead of embracing your self, Confucius urged, overcome your self. Break from who you think you are, because that is how you will change and grow.”

As a Christian, this sounded very similar to Christ enjoining us to find ourselves by losing ourselves.

This leads to my second moment of resonating and the point of me sharing this: What if we approached our political space in this same fashion? What would happen if a politician—rather than extolling their virtues, values, and ideas as the only right way—actually sought to understand and have some respect for those who differ from them? What if we, as voters, did the same? Would the tone and timber of our political conversations change for the better? Would the possibility of progress on some of our most pressing and painful issues be more likely? Would there be greater goodwill and cooperation among us all? Might we better live our nations’ dictum: epluribus unum i.e. out of many one, as well as help quell some of the strident contention that seems to pervade our public square?

Yes! Of course! But practically speaking, how do we get there from here? One way, these authors suggest, is to practice rituals. Rituals? Really? Here’s their reasoning:

“Engaging in rituals in a Confucian sense, though, is transformative. Confucian rituals — or “as if” rituals — come from the small conventional things we do all the time. When you pass a friend on the street and smile and say hi as if you weren’t just stressing over a bad exam grade you got, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual. When you’re tempted to roll your eyes over something your annoying cousin said, but instead respond as if what she said was insightful, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual. 

Yes, these moments go against our authentic, true feelings. They can feel fake, or like we’re being nice for politeness’ sake. 

But Confucius saw value in such rituals — if we do them ritually, and not rotely—precisely because they go against your authentic, true feelings and thus have the potential to allow you to become a different, and a better, person for a brief moment. The more you consciously engage in such moments the more you cultivate yourself. You train yourself not to always act true to yourself, in order to behave better.”

Interesting idea isn’t it? One presidential candidate especially leapt to mind when I read this, because, as best I can tell, his “authenticity” of “telling it like it is” is exactly what is so appealing to his supporters. And, given the natural course and feel of politics, one can sympathize with this hunger for a politician “being real.”

But what if Confucius and Christ actually had it right? What if we practiced treating others like we would like to be treated? What if we expected our politicians to do the same? What if, rather than expressing our rage or dismissal of another’s opinion, we “overcome ourselves” and give the person an authentic and real heartfelt hearing? Would that give space for them to do the same for us? What if we practiced the ritual of “walking in another’s shoes?” At a minimum, what if we at least try ritually “faking it until we make it?

Professor Puett concludes:

“The end result of all of this? As you cultivate your ability to break from yourself, you will continue to grow and change. As you cultivate your goodness, it slowly becomes second nature and radiates outward. Your kindness, rooted in the mundane and everyday, extends from the family and friends around you to town, region, nation, world.

That’s why our Chinese philosophers would say: don’t discover who you are, let alone embrace what you find. Instead of choosing self-acceptance, choose self-cultivation. Instead of embracing yourself, overcome yourself. This is not just how you become a flourishing adult. It is the best way to create a flourishing world.”

Shall we give it a try?

Jay Griffith, Salt Lake Village Square Leadership Team Member

Bill Mattox: Keep Austin Weird

Village Square board member Bill Mattox writes in USA Today:

Several years ago, some bohemians living in the capital city of Texas began distributing bumper stickers that read, “Keep Austin Weird.”

It was their way of calling for the preservation of the community’s sometimes-peculiar identity against cookie-cutter chains threatening to “McDonaldize” their hometown.

Now, I do not consider myself a weirdo, though my teenage kids probably have a different opinion, and I actually like some national chains. But I am convinced that we need to make the Austin campaign national: “Keep America Weird.”

Read the entire article in USA Today here.

Ross Douthat: On airport security, we’re partisans first, ideologues second (we wonder when we become just Americans)

There’s a great article in today’s New York Times about the inconsistency of the argument on the new TSA airport body scanners given the ultra partisan environment today. The article certainly supports the notion advanced by our next Village Square Dinner at the Square guest Bill Bishop that we have been sorting ourselves out into “tribes” for decades now and that the pull of group think within those likeminded groups (and the lack of trust between “tribes”) is very very strong. Noticing that partisans have taken quite opposite and ideologically inconsistent positions under different presidencies (whether it’s your party’s or not) Ross Douthat writesRead all »

General Colin Powell this morning on Face the Nation

“I would caution my Republican friends that he’s got three years left to go and in that three years Americans are going to want to see some progress and not just claims that this guy’s out of office and we’re going to do everything we can to destroy him or that somehow he is a socialist taking over the country. Read all »

Parker Palmer on holding tensions


From yesterday’s Bill Moyers Journal, Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal.

We want instant resolution. You give us a tension. We want it to get it over with in 15 minutes. We do it in everything from microcosmic situations to what happened in this country after September 11th, which is one of the great tragedies of our time, not only September 11th but our national response to it. We had an opportunity in the weeks following September 11th to really connect in new ways with the rest of the world, who were showing toward us compassion, which means suffering with.

They were saying today I, too, am an American, despite the fact that they knew more of this kind of suffering than we did. And we had caused some of theirs. Around the world people were saying, “Today I am an American.”

Well, if we had held the tension between that attack, that horrific criminal attack, and this possibility of connecting and deepening compassion, held it not through inaction but through what Bill Coffin called the justice strategy rather than the warfare strategy. If we had done that I think we would have opened a new possibility in American life. But we couldn’t. The 15 minutes elapsed and we had to hit back.

“There’s no Republican way to collect garbage”


On tonight’s Hardball, Chris Matthews, when discussing Judd Gregg bowing out of consideration for Commerce Secretary, referred to former New York Mayor John Lindsay (R), who according to Matthews said “there’s no Republican way to collect garbage.”

A wise man clearly ahead of his time.

(To my dear friend Anne: 1. Fact check, just like old times 2. More wise John Lindsay quotes 3. I remembered I always got the Ann vs. Anne wrong so I worked hard to get it right)

We must disenthrall ourselves


Historian Eric Foner on Bill Moyers Journal commenting on Abraham Lincoln’s presidency on the occasion of the upcoming 200 year anniversary of his birth:

… when he becomes president, he realizes that he’s going to have to rethink his assumptions. You know, he says in his great message to Congress in December 1862, “We must disenthrall ourselves.” Unchain ourselves literally and from our old ideas. And the “we.” We. He includes himself as part of that “we.” “We’ve got to slough off our own assumptions and think anew,” he says. And so it’s that strong moral compass but willingness to listen to criticism and think anew that I think is the characteristic that leads him into greatness.