I stumbled across quite the gem of a book while perusing the shelves of an Indigo bookstore last week. Written by Michael Puett, a Harvard professor of ancient Chinese history, “The Path” is a summary of his most popular course, one that students flock to in search of secrets to a good life.
The names of philosophers listed in the chapter titles immediately reminded me of Harry, one of the university students from Fuzhou who regularly attended our English Corners. Bespectacled and extremely intelligent, Harry could talk to you at length about any topic of choice, but his favourites were Harry Potter (after which he named himself) – and Chinese philosophy.
Somehow, the conversation, no matter what topic it began with, could always find its way back to a Confucian saying.
“You know Confucius? Most famous philosopher in China. All Chinese people know.”
I know Confucius, I always assured him, even though he inevitably launched into a full-length explanation anyways.
But did I really?
With Harry’s voice niggling my conscience, I crawled into a chair with the book, soon drawn into this wealth of ancient wisdom that echoed many spiritual principles from the Bible. Principles especially apt for this season of life, being in the midst of many potentially life-changing decisions. Thanks Harry.
Here were some of my favorite takeaways:
1. We can never make a perfect, rational decision.
We like to believe that we do.
The year before we graduate, we lay out all the possibilities, weigh the pros and cons, and pick our path ahead. We use up much of our senior-life time and energy making sure we make the best, most rational decision.
According to Puett, the ancient philosophers debated the concept of a coherent vs a capricious world. Mozi believed the world worked coherently. If you put in your labor, you would get your reward. Thus, one could predict the outcomes of your decisions and so, make a rational one.
Mencius was on the opposing side; he believed situations were much more complex. A relationship you worked hard for might suddenly end badly. You could study your best for a test, yet the results might still not reflect the work you put in.
When we try to make the perfect decision, we assume a stable self, an unchanging world and clear possibilities.
Instead, Mencius proposed that we behave like a farmer cultivating crops. He tills the soil, plants the seeds, and does what he can to ensure the crop grows. But, he also is prepared to deal with the flood, drought, and pest.
We can let go of the pressure to have to make the perfect decision, because there really is no such thing.
And as I weigh all sorts of decisions from ‘what to make for dinner’ to ‘which church small group should I plug myself into’, this frees me from stress that was not meant to be mine.
Yet, you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that. But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
2. To make a good decision, use the heart and mind as one: 心
So, the first mistake we make is stressing ourselves out trying to make the perfect decision. The second is when we make the dichotomy of either a rational or emotional decision.
Hence, the classic question: do we go with what feels right, or what we know to be right? According to Chinese philosophers, however, the decision should come from a unique blend of heart and mind, which is really only one character in Chinese: 心 (xin).
This interesting and perceptive Atlantic interview of Puett’s class alluded to a problem many high-achieving students face (including Princetonians!):
“We’re expected to think of our future in this rational way: to add up the pros and cons and then make a decision. That leads you down the road of ‘Stick with what you’re good at’”—a road with little risk but little reward.”
Chinese philosophy encouraged Puett’s class to not simply take courses they knew they were good at, but instead, to work hard at what they loved. For students who were used to making rational calculations, Puett challenged them to lean more into 心.
But what exactly is this mystical 心, a concept foreign to the Western ways of drawing dichotomies, and how do we measure it?
On this point, the philosophers, and Puett himself, are silent. A mystery for you and I to discover, I presume.
3. Meanwhile, cultivate the small, mundane experiences of daily life.
Before you get utterly discouraged by the grandiose abstractions of 心, take note that a major cornerstone of Chinese philosophy (one I had completely neglected prior to this reading) is the power of the daily ritual.
All people are the same; only their habits differ – Confucius
Human relationships are a manifestation of the sacred, Confucius argued, so by cultivating the seemingly ordinary and secular, we are in fact cultivating goodness.
So, if we really want to change our life, the secret is not in making those perfect, pivotal decisions (career path, marriage partner), although those decisions do carry much weight. Instead, the secret ingredients to the good life is found in our daily habits.
By smiling at the cashier at the grocery store, choosing a quiet disposition as we wait at the red traffic light or leaving buffer time before our next appointment, we create the good life.
When asked his rationale for teaching the class, Puett quotes:
“The Chinese philosophers we read taught that the way to really change lives for the better is from a very mundane level, changing the way people experience and respond to the world, so what I try to do is to hit them at that level. I’m not trying to give my students really big advice about what to do with their lives. I just want to give them a sense of what they can do daily to transform how they live.”
And so, as I think about the kind of life I want to create here in Montreal, I thank God for how He speaks to me, even though a little book on Chinese philosophy.
Indeed, his invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made (Romans 1:20). Even Confucius speaks of His wisdom.