Apt Worries, Needless Anxieties
Live Like a Confucian
A superior person has life-long worries but not daily anxieties. The worries are like this: “Shun was a person, and I am a person. Shun was a model for the whole world that could be passed down to future generations, yet I am still nothing more than an ordinary person.”
– Mengzi 4B28
“Seek and you will get it. Abandon it and you will lose it.” In this case, seeking helps in getting, because the seeking is in oneself. “There is a way (dao 道) to seek it, but getting depends on fate (ming 命).” In this case, seeking does not help in getting, because the seeking is external.
– Mengzi 7A3
The idea that one key to being a “superior person” is to be worried about the right kinds of things runs throughout Confucianism. In the Analects, we find passages like these:
“A superior person worries about the Way, not about personal poverty.”
– Analects 15:32
“A scholar-official must be strong and resolute, for his burden is heavy and his Way (dao 道) is long. He takes up benevolence as his own personal burden – is it not heavy? His Way ends only with death – is it not long?”
– Analects 8:7
“Life-long worries,” that is, center on one’s development as a good person. As past exercises have explored, one can choose to focus one’s attention on moral inclinations and on rituals in order to cultivate one’s moral growth—and one can do this no matter what the results are of one’s efforts toward worldly success may be.
In passages like 4B28, Mengzi contrasts these “life-long worries” about the Way with “daily anxieties” which, we can infer from passages like 7A3, concern matters that are outside our control and which are ultimately of little consequence. In a modern context, daily anxieties would things like getting a spot in a play or on a team, winning a scholarship or finding a job: things that are outside our control and do not influence the core person we are.
The Confucian notion of “life-long worries” means there never comes a time when one can rest on one’s laurels, thinking that one has done one’s duty and it is sufficient. This contrasts with some other moral systems, according to which we have limited, required duties and going beyond these is optional (and referred to as “supererogation”). For Confucians, there is no such thing as supererogation. In case “life-long worries” sounds really depressing, it may help to realize that there is a flip-side to seeing that you and a sage like Shun are both just people: you can be inspired by his model. You can be pulled toward being more like him (or some other role model), positively motivated to work towards a better self and a better society.
The other way in which the Confucian vision can lessen the burden on us, of course, is through its dismissal of “daily anxieties.” One does one’s best on those things that one can control, and then lets the chips fall where they may. As we know from earlier discussions, the satisfaction of physical desires is part of the Confucian good life, but focusing on these desires and being anxious about them is not.
At the beginning of the day, spend a few minutes listing things that you are worried about, either short-term or long-term. Then sort your list into those the Confucians would count as “life-long worries” and those they would call “daily anxieties.”
Over the course of the day, do two things: (1) When you think of additional worries, add them to your list. (2) When you find yourself actively concerned about something, ask whether it is a life-long worry or a daily anxiety. Keep track as best you can of what issues arose for you over the course of the way.