Posted on August 10, 2013
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
This ancient wisdom by Lao-zi is one of the most famous pieces of advice from the Dao de Jing. No matter where you are in life or what difficulties you face, the philosophy is simple: begin resolving the issue by taking that first step.
The smallest of efforts, if consistently taken over time, can have unimaginable results, just as a tiny seed of rice can one day become a great field of grain able to feed a village.
As someone who would rather stay at home and read a good book versus going out to a club or party, I could easily spend my days sitting back over a cup of coffee to contemplate and dream.
Taking that first ‘single step’ is easy in dreams. To actually make an effort is another story. It is easier to keep the dreams internalized, until one day they vanish and are replaced by regret. That is the danger.
Not fun. I’m guessing everyone has experienced such moments to some extent.
Prior to my first trip to China, I received a journal from my sister that had a quote from Joseph Campbell:
“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path.
You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.”
Words that are a perfect complement to Lao-zi’s advice at the beginning of this post.
Forging your way through a dense, dark forest has many similarities with forging your way through life: bugs and mosquitoes buzzing around all the time, the occasional leech taking more than they give, but the reward of the adventure is the discovery of beauties that unfold and make life shine.
Creating a path will bring fear and uncertainty, but without those spices of life, is life really worth living?
These quotes of Lao-zi and Campbell rang true during my continued travel in Guilin, where I met people who lived life through those very words.
The previous days along the Li River, reliving the past with the mystical ‘Chinese Fisherman of Folklore’ had me in a reflective mood of the past and the present. Entering the Li River valley and agricultural lands, I began to see people who looked as though they were simply making it day-by-day.
Part of the population left behind during China’s rapid ascension to modernity and wealth. Hearing their stories was the highlight of the trip.
The stories all involved some description of their hardships in one manner or another and all ended with some variation of “we all must keep moving forward – each day, life’s journey begins with the first step.”
While I enjoyed these discussions, as with most older Chinese, it was impossible not to see in their eyes something they were holding back: dark times of the Cultural Revolution. Times I have never heard discussed.
Today is where they are, and in their control.
One strength of people I admire, is the ability to react and thrive in a crisis. No false bravado or panic, but their ability to find the opportunity imbedded in the crisis and move forward.
When John F. Kennedy was asked about his heroism in World War II, he simply said: “It was involuntary, they sank my boat.” He had to find a way to save both himself and his crew; to understand the crisis and take the necessary action to achieve the best resolution possible.
Every crisis brings stress and danger and, while cliché, it also provides opportunity.
As my friends have told me, focus only on ‘wei’ (危), and you will miss the ‘ji’ (机), and the crisis can begin a downward spiral.
The people I met in the Guilin countryside seem to understand this concept of crisis quite well, and adhere to its philosophy. They can control “the now”, and therefore shut-off the worry of what has happened so they can take that fresh first step in their journey through life.
Often it is fear of this first step that is hardest to conquer. To forge ahead knowing you are facing the unknown. Much like finding a place in the forest, where it is most mysterious and dark, but the perfect spot to forge your own path.
There will be danger, yet take that first step and find the opportunities.