Once upon a time a man whose axe was missing suspected his neighbour’s son.
The boy walked like a thief, looked like a thief, and spoke like a thief.
But the man found his axe while digging in the valley, and the next time he
saw his neighbour’s son, the boy walked, looked and spoke like any other
– Lao-tzu (“Old Master”), philosopher (6th century BCE), considered founder of Taoism
Whether Lao-tzu was a myth, a single wise man of exceptional insight and observation, a non-existent personality who personified a collection of the wisdom of his day, or even whether he was a contemporary of Confucius or in fact lived in the 4th century BCE, the sayings attributed to him tell us much about human nature today.
In this saying he shows that we tend to see what we want to see. In a police lineup, does the person behind the one-way glass pick the “guilty” party (providing excellent evidence for the prosecution) by actually remembering the person who committed the crime, by comparing a fuzzy memory with the possibilities presented and making a best-guess choice (later sticking with that choice under pressure from police and prosecutor), or by assessing many contributing factors that might help make the decision then choosing the best option?
In my case, I might be able to identify a face I haven’t seen for 20 years, but be unable to identify someone I just spoke with ten minutes earlier. Science tells us that we identify whether a person is male or female based on some 200 different factors. How many of them or by how many other factors may we identify someone from memory? And how do our wishes influence our memory?
Lao-tzu says that we see what we want to see, what we expect to see.
In my personal experience with Employment Standards Officers of the Ministry of Labour, Province of Ontario (Canada), when I owned a small business, I discovered that two of them had their minds made up about me before they had any evidence from me (after receiving evidence only from former employees). One investigated my books thoroughly, then apologized for his presumption of my guilt, deciding in my favour.
The other didn’t both with evidence from me (refused to even hear it over the phone), found me guilty in absentia (without prior notification of a hearing), broke several laws in the process (including two from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and began a legal dispute which has gone on for over a decade. (The ministry has continued to support the law-breaker, refusing to admit guilt by an employee.)
While we may see what we want to see, how we act on that “evidence” determines whether we are morally correct ourselves. In the case of Lao-tzu’s example, the man who suspected his neighbour’s son of stealing his axe apparently didn’t take action against the boy. Rightly so, it seems, because when he later found his axe he saw the boy as innocent as any other “not guilty” child.
What was not part of Lao-tzu’s parable was whether the man held a grudge against the boy or against the boy’s father (his neighbour) until he found the axe that he had mislaid himself. Holding grudges is not only unwise, it’s self destructive because it always hurts the grudge holder more than the other party (who usually forgets the incident in question quickly). In the parable, if the man had held a grudge against either the boy or his father, the man would have been doubly guilty himself–and suffered himself greatly for it.
No one among us is without guilt for at least a few major sins. Nor is anyone without good qualities, if we choose to explore them. That includes ourselves. If we are not perfect, we should not expect perfection of others because it’s a prescription for self hurt.
People will disappoint us. It’s life. Some will disappoint us intentionally and regret it later. Some will disappoint us unintentionally and not even realize that they have done so. A few will disappoint us unintentionally, learn about it and feel guilt and remorse about it. No matter which of the three we can identify with in any example of disappointment or hurt in our lives, if we do not forgive we hurt ourselves.
Hurting ourselves is not just wrong, it’s stupid. We see people hurting themselves every day, by various means (mostly damaging their own health). It’s still wrong and stupid.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Because we don’t learn the “facts of life,” especially about human nature, early enough in our lives. If we learn about human nature as children, we can avoid huge amounts of personal hurt later in life because we are prepared for it and have the skills to cope with it. If not, we suffer.
The world is full of adults who are suffering because they haven’t accepted the realities of human nature and learned to cope with them. Some drown their sorrows with alcohol, some with drugs (prescribed or street), some by gambling, some by driving fast, some by beating their mates, some by inflicting harm on themselves.
We can teach that knowledge and those skills to children. Most adults know what they should teach, but decline to teach it to younger children because they want to “keep them as innocent as possible for as long as possible.” Innocence becomes ignorance and ignorance is the beginning of hurt and suffering. An innocent child is a person growing to become a hurt and possibly broken adult.
As the Crosby, Stills and Nash song said, “Teach your children well.” Start today.
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how, what and when to teach children the “facts of life” that go beyond procreation and get into real living.
Learn more at http://billallin.com