Allow me to paint a picture of arrogance — and the harm it causes humanity — through the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching.
Taoism is known for using metaphor, paradox, and dualities to express the natural world and the natural order of reality. Sometimes people find it confusing trying to understand the relationship between, for example, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ within the relative nature of the universe as described in the Tao Te Ching.
In previous articles, I have suggested that we tend to view polarities from the extreme ends, ignoring that both sides of the duality require a middle ground to exist.
Another way of saying this is that polarities or binaries are mutually arising.
To have the concept, of ‘good,’ you must also have ‘bad’. To have humility, you must also have arrogance.
The Tao Te Ching is not hesitant in stating what it would call despicable behaviour in the hearts of Tao cultivators — those who practice the teachings found in the Tao Te Ching and lead themselves with integrity and ethical conscientiousness in harmony with the natural order of things. They are often referred to as Sages or Enlightened Ones, terms you will read in many other so-called spiritual texts.
In terms of today, we might call these individuals, human-hearted leaders.
Witness the perpetual cycle of birth - life - death - birth.
We observe how the natural world self-regulates in ways that sometimes appear destructive and may negatively affect a species or habitat.
In humanity, we witness behaviours that are problematic and detrimental to the unity and well-being of social groups, countries, and the rest of the world. Human behaviours like egocentricity and self-importance, when taken to the extreme, have created every inequality imaginable, for example,
- Unsustainable capitalism
- Wealth disparity
- Religious fundamentalism
- Extreme poverty
- Disregard for the ecological health of our planet.
When we turn to the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, the mutually arising duality in this context is the relationship of humility and egocentricity with generosity and greed.
The Duality of Leadership and Politics.
There is no better example of insecurity, exaggerated self-importance, and egocentricity than Donald Trump.
Some politicians are exceptional leaders.
Others put themselves into the position of politics for self-aggrandizement, personal gain, power and control. Donald Trump is an example of someone who assumed the less desirable characteristics and is an example of someone who was and is still a significant danger to an equanimous and peaceful humanity.
The following lines from the 24th verse of the Tao Te Ching provide insight on the destructive arrogance of egocentricity:
Those who flaunt themselves are not clear
Those who presume themselves are not distinguished
Those who praise themselves have no merit
Those who boast about themselves do not last1
I hope it is enough for me to suggest that if you have seen one video of Donald Trump speaking (for example, at the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump on September 29, 2020), he is demonstrably the poster child for arrogance, self-righteousness, and egocentricity — as described in the lines of the Tao above.
Dare I say that my assessment is not at all contentious?
In verse 26 of the Tao Te Ching, we are asked a rhetorical question about the serious responsibility of those in positions of great leadership and power, namely what happens when a leader does not have a stable sense of self:
What can be done about heads of state
who take the world lightly in their own self-interest?
Lack of gravity loses servants of state;
instability loses heads of state.2
Case in point: Donald Trump refused to remain in the hospital while he was ill with COVID-19. He potentially exposed multiple people to the deadly virus— all for the egotistical purpose of being seen through a bullet-proof window for a presidential motorcade to demonstrate his grip on power. That such a display was required echoes the prophetic verse above.
What is the alternative to disruptive and destructive arrogance?
Humility is one of the core teachings found in the Tao Te Ching, and a core principle of personal and public leadership. I do not believe it is far-fetched to claim that much of the world is suffering from an extreme lack of humility.
In “The Tao Of Leadership,” John Heider writes,
“All these behaviors come from insecurity. They feed insecurity… Consider: When you think you are so good, what are you comparing yourself with? God? Or your own insecurities?”3
The path to Donald Trump’s rise to power was slowly and carefully cleared of obstacles and resistance for a long period time by a handful of controlling, self-centred, arrogant people (mostly men). Others have documented the slow creep towards fascism in what is now, sadly, an unstable, fragile democracy — perhaps already at the end of its lifespan.
Trump’s rise to power was and is still supported by many American voters who live in insecurity, arrogance, or a lack of critical thinking skills — the perfect social strata for populism.
To cultivate a more equitable and loving humanity, we need to collectively practice Human-Hearted Leadership.
Not only do we need to practice the most fundamental lesson of humility, as shared in the 24th verse of the Tao Te Ching, but concurrently compassion, non-contention, flexibility, impartiality, and commonality.
We must also conscientiously examine our ego-centric need to be shamelessly self-righteous in belonging to the right political tribe or ideology that ultimately furthers contention and division.
It is all-to-easy to attack someone on social media for their beliefs, to add content to a discussion that has nothing to do with the original message — creating a straw-man argument and inviting disagreement — and to mirror arrogance instead of trying to reduce contention by building a bridge of trust and understanding towards the middle ground.
It is only from the middle ground — the middle-point of the mutually arising sides of the argument — that we discover what connects us. Why else would we be arguing or fighting if not for the same thing, but only from a different point of view?
Consider our human nature in the duality of humility and arrogance.
Self-awareness, inner approval (also called self-love), personal responsibility, and heart-felt convictions are natural.
Self-righteous and egotistical behaviour is the seeking of external approval and validation that is superfluous and harmful to a healthy and unified humanity.
Inner approval cultivates equanimity, equity, and heartfelt connection. The need for external approval cultivates discord, arrogance, and division.
These are all human behaviour and emotions, neither right nor wrong, but only one group of behaviours cultivates universal human dignity.
An Invitation to Practice Human-Hearted Personal Leadership
Social transformation starts with personal transformation.
The next time you find yourself about to attack someone on social media or elsewhere (because they are oh-so-wrong), ask yourself,
“How can I respond in a heartfelt way with compassion and humility?”
Once you have your answer, express it to the other person and then practice the “impartiality of response” — meaning, don’t allow your ego to expect or anticipate a reply.
The other person might not be ready to respond in the same way, if at all. If they reply with more anger or frustration, ask yourself the same question above. You may wish to try again, walk away, or respond with a gentle question to practice what I call, “silent listening,”
Silence can be a great strength.
Not silence in the sense of not speaking up, instead, silence practiced as a form of impartial witnessing, of being open to understanding the other person’s beliefs, values, and morals, and as an equalizing practice.
Updated from the original article on DarrenStehle.com
Lin, Derek, trans. Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained. Vermont: Skylight Paths, 2011. ↩
Cleary, Thomas, trans. The Essential Tao: An Initiation into the Heart of Taoism Through the Authentic Tao Te Ching and the Inner Teachings of Chuan-tzu. New York: Castle Books, 1998. ↩
Heider, John. The Tao of Leadership: Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age. Atlanta: Bantam Books, 1988. ↩