The Noble Person and the Small Person
This past Monday morning, I was going to give a rousing lecture on classical philosophy from the “Warring States” period to my dear students in my Chinese History and Culture class. I was going to fill them with hope and certainty and a spirit of community and activism, and somehow transmit to them, magically, how their future role as healers in the proud tradition of Chinese medicine would enable them to “harmonize Heaven and Earth” and heal this horrid mess that we find ourselves in right now. When I opened my mouth, though, I realized that I had no wise words but only tears to share for these beautiful people in front of me. I find myself torn in an unpredictable and often disturbing pendulum between a strong need to spill my insides out and utter speechlessness. Being a teacher in this state is quite challenging, especially if you have to teach something as personal and relevant (at least for me) as philosophy and history.
I am struggling with finding meaning in writing this morning. I know when I used to play street music in Japan, I'd make people stop, smile, appreciate the moment, I warmed their hearts and sent them on their way with a little more love and light and beauty in their hearts. And when I played accordeon in a Mexican norteño band in Tucson, my band members and the Mexican and native people in the audience didn’t judge me for my whiteness, everybody just picked up their feet and danced. Writing, especially when posted only on my blog and to my Facebook "friends," touches so few people and probably just reaffirms what you are already thinking. Does it truly build community and facilitate change? Related to this but perhaps even more poignant, is there a point to social media or is it just a waste of time? I have found much solace and some helpful perspectives on Facebook this last week, but really, I have also spent a lot of time reading and crying and shaking my head in disbelief. Is writing in what is clearly a safe bubble truly a constructive act of community-building and a courageous statement of dissent, or does it just make me feel good about doing SOMETHING? And as such, does it ultimately take energy away from engaging in real, concrete acts of resistance to an inhuman system of exploitation that is now threatening our survival as humans on a global scale.
As I try to figure out my response to the current state of the world as I see it, I don't know anything any more...Life on a goat farm was a lot easier to make sense of. Yesterday's magical evening of Turkish Sufi music and poetry reminded me of the healing power of beauty for me personally. Do I need to shut off the computer and instead pull out my accordeon and start another norteño band? Is there a point in writing yet another blog on the cultivated virtue of the Confucian "noble person" and how they would respond to times of adversity? Or am I better off sitting in silent meditation? Am I not just preaching to the choir? But then, perhaps there is nothing wrong with that, since the music has always been the most beautiful aspect in church for me, lifting all of us up in a divinely inspired community and raising our voices to god, so that we can then go out, each of us, like waves in a pond rippling from the center, and spread that spirit around. All I know is that I don't want to waste time or apply band-aids, for myself and for others. What is it that truly matters in times like this? What is the value and purpose of life? How can I be of service in the most effective way possible and inspire others to do the same?
I had a dream early this morning, and I take my dreams very seriously. I was on a bus, missed my stop, and then got rudely kicked off the bus in the middle of nowhere because I confronted the bus driver for her lack of kindness toward another rider, for what American slang with offensive casualness refers to as “acting like a Nazi.” In response to my intervention, she brutally stabbed me with a syringe (which was somehow a legal action in the context of my dream), drawing blood for a blood test, forced me off the bus, and told me to wait for the cops so that they could test me for alcohol and drugs. No big deal since I was clean, just some public humiliation, and I could feel that the rest of the passengers were on my side, was my first response. And then my distrust of police crept in, and with it the panic of not being believed, of being framed in a fake blood test, of things spiraling out of control. And then I woke up.
What I took away were two things: First, ever since September 11 and the growing concern with “security,” we have seen a corrosion of our civil liberties and the rise of people with limited training but far too much authority and power over us with far too few restraints. This doesn’t really affect our daily lives as long as we conform to society’s norms and play by the rules. Security cameras at intersections and in public transportation, private militias disguised as “citizen patrol” in front of the local school during a high school dance, checkpoints at the airport, drills at my work place, … my list is not very long because I am white with a European name and passport, have a real job and home now, don’t do drugs, and have not been on the government’s radar for a while. But in the dream, just the small act of taking public transportation, which people less privileged than me are forced to do on a daily basis, exposed the fragility and danger of this so-called “security.” The bus driver in my dream turned a seemingly minor situation into a nightmare (literally) because she abused her authority, out of whatever strange motivation that left all the passengers, including myself, speechless in the moment and turned all of us into either victims (in my case) or bystanders (in the case of the other passengers). The driver acted in a way that the classical writings of Chinese philosophy, most notably in the Confucian tradition, refer to as a “small person” 小人. So I woke up with a need to write about this “smallness,” which is contrasted with what for lack of a better term I here call “noble person” 君子 (usually translated as “gentleman” but not containing any reference to gender in the original Chinese). So here are some quotes from Confucius’ “Analects” 論語.
The Master said: “The noble person is all-encompassing and not tightly associated. The small person is tightly associated and not all-encompassing.”
The Master said: “The noble person takes comfort in the power of virtue; the small person takes comfort in personal possessions. The noble person takes comfort in normative models of behavior; the small person takes comfort in favoritism.”
The Master said: “The noble person instructs by means of adherence to moral principles. The small person instructs by means of personal profit.”
The Master said: “The noble person brings out what is attractive in others and does not bring out what is repugnant in others. The small person is the opposite of this.”
Jì Kāngzǐ asked Confucius about government: “Suppose we kill those who do not possess the Dào (“Way”) and by doing so align ourselves with those who do possess the Dào, what do you think about that?” Confucius responded: “As you enact government, why would you use killing? All you have to do is desire goodness, and the people will become good, and that is all! The power of the noble person’s virtue is the wind, and the power of the small person’s virtue is the grass. The wind blowing over the grass invariably causes it to bend.”
The Master said: “The noble person seeks in themselves; the small person seeks in others.”
The Master said: “People are able to make the Dào grand; it is not the Dào that can make people grand.”
Analects XVII.23 子路曰：「君子尚勇乎？」子曰：「君子義以為上。君子有勇而無義為亂，小人有勇而無義為盜。」
Zǐ Lù said: “Does the noble person exalt courage?” The Master said: “The noble person places the adherence to moral principles above all else. When the noble person has courage but lacks adherence to moral principles, this causes social upheaval. When the small person has courage but lacks adherence to moral principles, they will become a thief.”
And so on and on. Thank you, dear reader, for bearing with me with all these lofty quotes on virtue. It was a great escape for me that took me way longer than anticipated.
To return to my dream of being mistreated by that angry bus driver, the second thing that struck me about this dream was that nobody among the passengers, even though they were all witnessing this senseless abuse of authority from a compassionate angle, stopped the woman in power in her act of “man-handling” me, publicly shaming me, and retaliating unreasonably, with potentially life-changing consequences for me. It would have been quite easy for anybody to get off the bus with me, to assure me that they’d wait for the police with me and explain the situation, or even to call the driver’s supervisors right then and there to record this incident and the driver’s actions. That did not happen. And that is why I ended up writing this blog after all. Maybe something that triggered this strange dream that last night, I observed two white cops in an altercation with a black man in predominantly white suburban Portland last night and was ready to get off the train just to bear witness, when I saw the three of them shake hands. So I stayed in my seat, and the train moved on. I am still not sure there is meaning in my writing blogs instead of getting back to my medical translations, and that the past few hours have been the most effective use of my precious time, but here it is. If nothing else, it has been a sweet way to spend my afternoon.