Day 7:
Sincerity and Joy

Live Like a Confucian

After completing the assigned exercise for today, click here to access the prompt for the 1000-word Synthesis Essay, due by noon on Tuesday, October 6.


All things are complete in oneself. There is no greater joy than to look within and find oneself to be sincere. Nothing gets one closer to benevolence than forcing oneself to act out of sympathetic understanding (shu 恕). 

– Mengzi 7A4

Yesterday was focused on “worries” and other days during this week have looked at ways we can try to control ourselves. But the Confucian goal is not one of rigid self-control. Remember Kongzi at seventy, who could “follow his desires without overstepping the bounds”? He is described as spontaneously doing the right thing, flawlessly, without internal struggle. This is obviously something that comes in degrees—and it took Kongzi most of his lifetime to achieve it. What fraction of one’s behavior is spontaneous, instead of forced? In the latter cases, how hard of a struggle is it to act well? The answers to these questions will change day-to-day, over time, and depend on different life circumstances. Most people act pretty well most of the time, and a lot of that is on the spontaneous end of the spectrum. Yesterday when you brushed your teeth, or smiled at a friend, or did the dishes, did you (or someone else) have to nudge you to do it or did it simply happen? Less-routine actions can also happen more or less spontaneously, and Confucian texts sometimes spell out the degree of moral development one has reached at least partly in terms of how automatically one responds. Why do Confucians put such emphasis on the value of spontaneity?

Negatively, it is because of problems with non-spontaneous behavior. The most basic problem with non-spontaneous behavior it is that it is unreliable. Suppose you cannot avoid spending time with someone whom you find annoying—maybe a fellow student, maybe a relative. You know that things will go more smoothly if you keep your frustration to yourself, and experience with this person has shown you that you are not the right person to help them overcome the traits that set you off. So long as you really focus, you can pretend to be getting along. But what about an unguarded moment? Furthermore, this kind of sustained pretending can be exhausting. “Paying attention” really is draining and can undermine our motivation; at a certain point you can’t avoid rolling your eyes and muttering “Oh, I give up!” Next, even if things do not go this far, to the extent that it is obvious that you are forcing yourself to be nice, that undermines the effect of the nice behavior. (See Day 5 on microagressions.)

Finally, it is also possible that forced pretending may produce less flexible responses than spontaneity would. If you don’t really “get it” and are forcing yourself to respond based on a kind of script, you are like a novice actor who does nothing more than what her screenplay indicates. You’ll have no way to know what to do if things go “off script.” Contrast this with a skilled actor who has learned to really inhabit a role.

Natural, spontaneous reactions are the opposite of pretending in each of these respects. Spontaneity is reliable, undemanding and thus sustainable, genuine, and flexible. And furthermore–here is the positive side of the story—it is joyous. Spontaneously, sincerely taking part in a family’s (or a class’s or country’s) flourishing is central to the Confucian good life.

Today's Exercise

Today your job is to track moments of sincere spontaneity. Often these pass us by without notice because they do not demand our conscious attention, so stop periodically and think back on your last hour or two. You might also ask whether there are some contexts in which sincerity and spontaneity are easier than others, and whether Mengzi is right in saying that it is a “joy.”