11.26 in the Analects of Confucius tells of a conversation between the master and his pupils, where the former asks what each would do if accorded the proper appreciation. The answers which displease Confucius are ambitious plans for statecraft; what pleases him is Zengxi’s answer, that spend a pleasant Spring afternoon bathing in a river.
The annotations in my book state that this passage is about honesty, humility, and the practice of Virtue in the right contexts- the other students are too hasty and thus impudent.
Yet for me, there was something else in this passage. The Master’s question, preceded by a needling remark that “Because I am older than any of you, no one is willing to employ me. Yet you, too, often complain…”, is “if someone were to appreciate you, what would you do?”.
Keeping the importance of virtuous action and proper order for Confucius in mind, what this passage says to me is that appreciation succeeds merit, it does not precede it. The other students seem to take appreciation at face value, trusting it to have meaning and applying themselves to the tasks available. Yet one is not appreciated before cultivating and proving themselves. For Zengxi, the appreciation comes at the end of a job well done, and as such he takes this time (“once the Spring garments have been completed”) to relax as is his due- yet also in a seemly manner.
The lesson I draw, then, is not to await and grow anxious over appreciation as a key to action; instead, it is action which leads to appreciation, which in turn allows for leisure.
Yet what precedes any action that can generate appreciation is opportunity; and for that to bear fruit, preparedness is necessary.
That one’s affairs should not be such that they draw them away from decisions in the moment; that one’s preoccupations do not push them to act contrary to their righteous path; that one does not grow so slack as to be unable to grasp that which is presented to them.
What are the enemies of such preparedness?
Anxious worry. A hazy mind. Sloth in action. The leaving of decisions to the external.
What are those which aid in preparedness?
Clear evaluation. Confidence in action. Assurance in righteous behaviour. Readiness to repent.
Without these, one falls into a cycle of worry. Each action overburdened by meaning, generally externally, is seen as necessitating material and psychological preparedness beyond one’s own station, such that preparations for that can become overwhelming and point endlessly to dependence on outside assistance. And each action that is not burdened by public or prestigious meaning, actions that seem inconsequential, are repeated beyond their meaning, and mould the character beyond one’s intentions. These “small”, “private” actions become the outlet for the worry, a grounds on which the content of one’s character are exercised without consequence- yet this is not the case, for the consequence is the very content of character that is channelled through them. And the “great” actions that weigh heavily on one’s mind are delayed, for the character braces itself to be transformed rapidly and painfully by these acts. If there is a chance of the process being incomplete, however, one becomes painfully aware of the chance of strange, uneven impact on character- and as such shies away until the character is fully ready to receive the action- which it will not become because the constant flow of “inconsequential” actions only regress the character.
Instead, the importance assigned needs to be redistributed more equitably. To take half a pill for worry of its side effects, but smoke a full pack of cigarettes based on craving alone, is no sensible mathematics. Likewise, to box beneficial acts into a sequestered time of “work” while smaller acts are taken wholesale and fill in the entirety of the void left, is to allow the latter to define the baseline, which is a far more powerful transformation of the character than that which is only allowed to influence the “prepared” and “braced” individual.
It is quite the contrary. The pleasant and inconsequential should fill the “prepared” times, the thing that one looks forward to and plans for. Those things that are made to be beneficial to the character, must instead be practiced continuously and tirelessly. It is these which will train a tireless spirit. And as successes are achieved through this, the appreciation of this tireless spirit will open the doors to relaxation and leisure- appreciation of the world and oneself.
The motivations that make up the individual are intrigued by argument, convinced by demonstration, and cultivated by practice. It is too easy to cycle through the first in endless ways, doing little other than making ourselves more cynical as to the possibility of change. To use the entirety of this cycle, is to bring ourselves into greater harmony.