A person on tip-toe cannot stride.
One who puts himself forward does not shine; one who is himself is not showy.
One who boasts achieves nothing; the braggart’s glory is short-lived
From the point of view of the Tao, all this carry-on is like excess food,
or, perhaps, something loathsome, so one who has the Tao does not abide it.
The first half of this chapter brings together several adages that might originally have stood alone, independently, all of which give similar messages about the worthlessness and futility of arrogant behaviour and self-conceit.
The first line is an adage with several implications. There is an obvious literal meaning. Then, by analogy, it is an advice not to over-reach oneself. Then, to stand on tip-toe, in Chinese, also implies to plan, so there is an implication about avoiding having ideas that are too grandiose. If one has modest intentions, then it is likely one may exceed them, whereas if one sets out to conquer the world one will fail and end up worse off than the person who progressed in a more steady - “feet on the ground” - fashion. The contrasting expression, “feet on the ground”, speaks to us of practicality and common sense, whereas being on tip-toe implies putting on airs and trying to stand taller than is natural. This therefore is about living the life that one actually has rather than affecting something artificial. As ever in Taoism, it is an injunction against pride and conceit.
The second line gives a similar message. The authentic person does not need to put on a show and does not do so for himself. The kind of person that one can put trust in is the one who is quietly confident, whose personal security does not depend upon social approval, who is not trying to impress, but who lives according to what is genuine, whether others agree or not. Such a person is not carried away by fashions, whether of dress and style or of thought and culture. He or she probably has a sense of humour regarding the currents of popular opinion. Like the wise old many or woman, the sage has seen it all before and does not bend over backwards for the sake of transient popularity.
The third line makes a similar point: that although bragging might bring a short term glory, it is generally very short-term and the lasting impact is negative. When one sees the bigger picture or considers the longer time span, one sees that nothing is achieved by such a manner of carrying on. It is shallow and breeds only contempt and cynicism.
The second, shorter part sums up the moral using an interesting analogy. All this boasting is like excess food. Food is good and necessary, but when there is too much it becomes counter-productive. Over-eating shortens lives. When we eat too much we start to feel uncomfortable. If the excess gets greater we experience nausea. The person of Tao has a similar nausea regarding excess show and hubris. This principle is so Fundamental to Taoism that it would be wrong even to say that Taoism advocates humility, since to advocate it would imply some effort to display oneself in a humble way, whereas Taoism abhors any kind of self display whatsoever. It values honesty. Be what you actually are. In the game of life, play the hand that you have actually been dealt. Be true to what is actually the case and avoid any kind of dissembling.
The sage, therefore, does not present himself as a guru, even though, in fact, he might be the person in all the world most worth imitating. However, to imitate the sage is not actually to copy what she does; it is to be authentic to what is so in one’s own case. This spirit carries through into much of oriental Buddhism as well. when one reads the stories of encounters between Buddhist masters in which some kind of spiritual awakening is said to have occurred, what one actually reads is an account of two people enjoying each other’s authenticity or of one person, by simply being authentic, in effect pulling the rug out from under a pose by the other, in such a way that the other realises the truth.
There are many pitfalls in trying to follow such a path. In fact, the very act of “trying” is a pitfall in itself. Yet, from the starting point of most people’s lives, there is a great deal to unlearn. In childhood, we acquire a great range of strategies for avoiding humiliation which is certainly painful. Then we gradually realise, perhaps, that we have built up a false structure for our life, but how is it to be undone? We then, perhaps, seize upon something that seems to be the opposite of the conventional. We become an enthusiast for a set of ideas that we come to think of as representing freedom, or, at least, the rejection of what people in the past took to be respectability. However, this new enthusiasm may turn out to be just as much a pose as what we are trying to reject. The very fact that we cling to it so strongly and advocate it so vehemently suggests that it is not natural. We read “self-help” books, or follow a political or spiritual ideal, but it may simply be another storey added to an already rickety structure. Sometimes there is even more arrogance in those who reject conventional life than there was in the lives of those they now have contempt for. Even the best philosophies are vulnerable to this kind of misuse.
Unfortunately, the common dynamic of society tends to have such an effect. It is a bit like the situation in a cinema if some people start to stand up in order to see the screen better. Soon everybody is standing up and nobody can see the screen any better than they could when everybody was sitting down. So now some start standing on tip-toe or climbing onto boxes and so on. They supposedly came to the cinema to have an enjoyable experience, but actually something quite different is taking place and people are getting frustrated and angry because all think they have a right to enjoyment, and, if possible, more enjoyment than the others. Over-all it is ridiculous, though one can understand why an individual joins in. In this analogy, the sage is like somebody who notices that he can no longer see the screen that everybody else is watching, but instead of getting up like everybody else, starts exchanging humourous stories with the person sitting next to him. While everybody else is getting stressed and tired, the two old Taoists are sitting comfortably and laughing at each other’s jokes.