The Path: Decisions

September 18, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Sept. 18, 2016

“The Path – Decisions”
Prov. 18:1-3
James 3:17
Quotes from Mencius 372-289 BCE

Claire Varin, a 33 year old mom, was at a McDonald’s. She saw an unshaven man sitting despondently in the corner. He had no meal and was eating ketchup directly from the dispenser. She realized that this was the moment she could make a difference in someone’s life. Varin was buying breakfast and decided to buy the man some food. It was the least she could do. She had a few extra dollars on her and wanted to spend them helping someone out. She bought an extra meal and brought it over to him. “This is for you,” she said, and walked away with a warm feeling in her heart.

Moments later, a staff member delivered another breakfast to the man. It was the food that the man had ordered for himself. The staff member apologized for the wait as Varin watched on, mortified.

“I felt like I was going to die of embarrassment,” she said. It’s hard to imagine how bad you would feel after embarrassing someone in public. “I didn’t stick around to see if he ate the food I bought him, too,” she said, “I just ran out of the place as quickly as I could.”

“God knows what he thought,” she added. “He probably tells people about the time a crazy woman bought him a breakfast for no reason.”

Hopefully, this kind of thing hasn’t happened to anyone here this morning. But most of us have lived long enough to know that good deeds don’t always have their intended benefit.

When we plan for our futures, we tend to assume that the future is predictable. Of course, we pay lip service to the notion that life can change on a dime and that nothing is certain. But we’re still often taken by surprise when things don’t turn out the way we’d expected. And that’s because when it come to how we live our lives, we tend to behave as if there are certain stable factors we can count on in a world that is coherent, and this assumption affects our decisions.

Today, we are continuing to explore the book The Path; What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life. Each week we are talking about a different ancient Chinese philosopher and what we can learn about our modern lives. Last week, we considered Confucius and his “as if” way of changing our relationships. Today’s topic builds on that as we consider one of his students, Mencius, and how his philosophy may help us make decisions.

Mencius saw the world, not as coherent or stable, but as capricious. He noted that hard work did not necessarily lead to prosperity. And, that bad deeds were not necessarily punished. He observed that there were no guarantees, no stable, overarching coherence to the world that one can count on. Mencius believed that the world is fragmented, in perpetual disorder, and in need of constant work. He thought that when we understand that nothing is stable that we can make decisions and live our lives in the most expansive way.

To understand Mencius, it is important to know his personal story. In the late 4th century BCE, during an era of strife now known as the warring States period, Mencius (who was a Confucian scholar), decided that the time was right for the beginning of a new dynasty based on Confucian teachings. After many years, the ruler of the state of Qi appointed Mencius to a prominent ministerial position and gave him many audiences.

Soon, however, it became clear that the ruler of Qi was not truly interested in learning from him. The king waged a war after tricking Mencius into seeming to have urged him to do so. The king used him to make his aggressive act appear virtuous and had no intention of listening to him. Mencius left Qi and returned to his home.

This experience shaped his philosophy greatly. He would argue that the very things we believe to be true when we plan out our lives are also the things that, ironically, limit us.

Mencius believed that what set good people apart from others was that they cultivated their emotional responses. He taught that we can constantly hone our emotional sense so that it works in sync with our minds, in order to make decisions that open up the future rather than close it down. He said: “Evil exists to glorify the good. Evil is negative good. It is a relative term. Evil can be transmuted into good. What is evil to one at one time, becomes good at another time to someone else.”

Our own tradition teaches a similar idea: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

In Chinese, the word for mind and heart is actually one and the same: xin. The heart-mind (think of that as a hyphenated word) is the seat of our emotions as well as the center of our rationality. What separates those who become great human beings from those who do not, Mencius taught, is the capacity to follow their heart-mind rather than to go along blindly with either the senses or the intellect. Cultivating the heart-mind is what fosters our ability to decide well.

In other words, good decisions are made when the mind and heart are integrated and cultivated. Imagine that someone treats you with anger. Maybe a long-simmering resentment between you and your brother has finally exploded into the open. A refined response would be not to automatically respond with anger of your own, even though it might be tempting. Nor would it be to placate him, numb out, or simply avoid talking.

Rather, a refined response begins by taking a moment to try to grasp all the emotions and triggers that lie behind your brother’s behavior. It is likely that the current state of the relationship has built up over years of patterned responses – on both your parts. If you start by trying to sense where the anger comes from and to grasp what might be done to alter those pieces of the relationship, you will be lifted out of the mind-set that has you thinking of him as just being a certain way. New approaches will occur to you.

When you make a point of training yourself to approach situations with the broadest perspective and understanding of how to alter an outcome, you are constantly cultivating your potential for goodness. This is what it means to cultivate the heart-mind. It allows you to become more responsive to the world, your better sides to remain intact, and your vision to remain unimpaired.

Another example… The Colorado River was dangerous and unreliable. Melting snow in the mountains caused damaging floods during the late spring and early summer. Unpredictable flash floods could occur in any season. However, by mid-summer, the river’s flow was barely enough to supply the farms in southern California and Arizona that depended on it.

The river caused enormous damage and permanently flooded thousands of acres. Over the next 20 years, Congress spent over $10 million trying to protect Imperial Valley farmers from floods.

It was postulated that storing water from the annual spring runoff and releasing it gradually during the summer for irrigation was an optimal way to handle the problem. However, seven different states had high stakes in the matter.
* Who would get the most water?
* Who would pay for the project?
* How much water would be stored and where?
* Could they trust the other states?
Herbert Hoover used the heart-mind strategy as he worked with the seven states and their struggles. At the height of the Great Depression, thousands of workers were able to gain jobs to build the great dam that would harness the power of the Colorado River. Hoover Dam is the result of this heart-mind process and it is an engineering marvel. Even more, it is a symbol of what good decision making can be.

Mencius challenges us to create optimal conditions and then to respond to whatever various situation arise in this capricious world. Using the heart-mind, we lay the ground work in which change can grow.

In Mencius’s world, ming prevails. Ming has been translated as fate, destiny, or even God’s will. But for Mencius, it was a term for the contingency of life: the events, good and bad, that happen outside our control. Ming explains that windfalls (like a new job opening) and tragedies (such as death) happen no matter what we have planned or intended.

We know ming:
• Talented people get laid off and can’t find another job.
• The person someone loves decides, inexplicably, to leave.
• Good friends die suddenly.
But Mencius said of ming: “It should never be anyone’s fate to die in shackles.” He used this euphemism “dying in shackles” to note that some fail to respond properly to what befalls us. It means letting our reaction be controlled by the things that happen to us.

There is another way to respond, one that allows us to shape our own ming and forge our own future. Ming is not just about the tragedies that happen to us; it is about the good things too.
• Unexpected opportunities
• Unforeseen chances to do something we love
• Chance encounters
When you hold too tightly to a well-laid out plan, you risk missing out on these things.

When we can let go of the idea that there are clear guidelines and a stable world, then what we are left with is the heart-mind to guide us. We develop it through relationships with the people we’re with. It helps us lay the groundwork for growth and to see the world of infinite possibilities.

Resources Used:

Puett, Michael and Gross-Loh, Christine. The Path; What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach us About the Good Life. 2016.