The true face of courage

That year, when I got to the small Chinese village hidden in the Himalayas, I was quite upset. One of the young men who worked at my advertising agency had made me discontent. He was in the office since he was an intern. Talented and dedicated, he had climbed every step within the company to the point where he became responsible for some of the most important accounts we had. He was the employee closest to me, to the point that people joked that he was the son I never had and heir to the agency, since my daughters, all women, were never interested in advertising and followed other professional paths. I was the best man at his wedding and I was delighted to baptize his son. If there was anyone I trusted, it was Fred, as he was called. A few days before traveling for another period of study with Li Tzu, the Taoist master, I received the news, through my secretary, that Fred had resigned. To my surprise, not only had he set up an agency to compete with ours, but he had sought out all of our clients in an attempt to persuade them to join him. To such end, he did not shy away from criticizing our methods to create and execute campaigns. He promised he would do better. Two important clients, whose accounts were his responsibility, terminated the contract they had with us to sign with him. As if all that weren’t enough, under the pretext of saying goodbye to me, he entered my room and poured out a series of sorrows and criticisms of my behavior, be it personal, be it professional, which I didn’t ever even imagine existed. Annoyed by the whole situation, we argued and other agency employees had to intervene in order to stop it from escalating.

When I got off the bus, I left my suitcase at the only hostel in town and straightaway headed to Li Tzu’s home. Midnight, the black cat who also lived there, slept lazily in the bonsai garden. When he saw me, he looked at me, scared, and ran. The Taoist master welcomed me with a sincere smile, but when I approached, he warned: “Your energy is heavy.” Then he warned: “Every time we get hurt it means we lost the battle.”

I agreed that I was very upset, but that the battle had just begun. Before I continued to speak, realizing that my mood would shift easily, the Taoist master invited me to have tea. He took me to the kitchen. While I sat down at the table, he put the herbs in brew. To help me transmute, at least in part, the energy that emanated from me, he started talking about himself to calm my irritation. Then he served the tea. We didn’t exchange a word for a while, until the Taoist master asked what had happened that was so serious to knock me off my feet. I narrated all the facts. I said that, to make matters worse, there is an international festival in which the best advertising campaigns on the planet are chosen every year. Agencies from all over the world register their best creations to compete. I explained that this award, divided into several categories, was extremely important, as it opened the doors to the accounts of large corporations, raising the financial level of the awarded agencies. My agency had submitted an advertisement, which I considered to be great, made precisely for one of the companies that decided to leave us to accompany Fred. Although created and aired when the account was still ours, Fred claimed to be the campaign’s mentor and had challenged me, on the day we argued, to submit another campaign that didn’t have his name on it. He added that he would like to use this set of advertisements at the festival, as he was their intellectual author. I said that I would not remove the advertisements from the contest, as they had been prepared by my agency during the term of the contract. He threatened to file a lawsuit with unthinkable consequences. I replied that I was ready for battle.

Li Tzu looked at me sweetly and asked: “Why listen to the drums that call for war?” I replied that I was not a coward.

Contrary to what I expected, Li Tzu didn’t reply. He waited for me to empty my mug of tea, smiled and handed me Tao Te Ching. He asked me to read chapters seventy-three and seventy-nine of the book, reflect, meditate and return after finding use for each word contained in the short texts, respectively:

“Those who have the courage to dare will perish.

Those who have the courage not to dare will live.

Of those two, one is beneficial and one is harmful.

What Heaven detests, who knows why?

Even the sage considers it difficult.

Heaven’s Way does not contend,

Yet it certainly triumphs.

It does not speak,

Yet it certainly answers.

It does not summon,

Yet things come by themselves.

It seems to be at rest,

Yet it certainly has a plan.

Heaven’s net is very vast.

It is sparsely meshed, yet nothing slips through.”

“When bitter enemies make peace,

Surely some bitterness remains.

How can this be solved?

Therefore:

The sage honors his part of the settlement,

But does not exact his due from others.

The virtuous carry out the settlement,

But those without virtue pursue their claims.

Heaven’s Way gives no favors.

It always remains with good people.”

Disappointed by the Taoist master’s silence, I walked around with the book under my arm. I understood that Li Tzu’s intention was to teach me how to apply Tao to life, but the Western comfort had led me to wish for pre-made answers, readily available, requiring no effort to find them. He had advised me of stillness and solitude; reading and reflection. Tao teaches that each person holds all the answers within himself; the Path is seeking them. I found a nice place by the river that went down the mountain range and crossed the small village. I settled down under a leafy tree to reread the recommended chapters. So I did, dozens of times until I knew them by heart. Still irritated by the fight I had with Fred, I found it very difficult to use Tao in practice. I realized that this vibration coming from animosity hindered the light for better understanding; it hindered the good virtues from finding the place and function to transform my view on the issue. I closed my eyes and let the sound of the river flood every molecule in my body, as if it were possible for my feelings to be cleared by the waters. I allowed the fight to move away from me so that I could see it in another light, not as a soldier, but as an observer. Gradually, I calmed my heart; this allowed me to clear my mind. So, I was able to use Tao to guide my steps.

Courage is, without shadow of a doubt, a virtue. A socially applauded virtue, always linked to the archetype of the hero. Heroes from fiction fight by reacting in the same level as the threats. This model remains stored in our unconscious. Thus, when provoked, we get used to responding in the same language used by the speaker. We react automatically. When we use shadows to fight shadows, we increase our problems. By enveloping ourselves in darkness, we allow the other’s action, however banal or stupid, to reach us. Under the illusion of defending rights created by immature egos, when moved by pride and vanity, we lock ourselves in the cells of resentment and dissatisfaction, in vicious cycles of suffering. Deep down, we react violently because we are afraid. A sad habit, for it takes us to an endless war. As we do not like to reveal ourselves as cowards to the world, or even in the mirror, we respond in the way we have been conditioned in order to hide that we feel weak. Thus, we leave a trail of pain, both in ourselves and in others. We cannot be merely an answer that was born ready; we must allow ourselves to make new and unthinkable choices. A possibility to be different, to allow the light to manifest in us and through us. Each person chooses the battle they will fight, as well as the weapons they will use. This defines the pains or the joys of our day.

Within me there are the best and worst feelings. So it is with everyone, no exceptions. Learning what to do with them defines who I am, achieving plenitude, and my place in the world. There are those who kill out of jealousy; there are those who make a song for the same reason. There are those who return the offense tit for tat; there are those who, in the face of darkness, turn the other cheek, the cheek of light. There are those who are imprisoned for centuries in the cells of resentment; there are those who are freed through forgiveness. There are those who avenge themselves for evil; there are those who realize that evil is bad because of the ignorance that surrounds it, so they educate it justly. Aggressiveness, of any kind, indicates those who are afraid to face themselves, to embrace their darkest feelings with love, and then enlighten them, as a good father does with a rebellious son. By denying the disease, we rule out the chance of a cure. Pain will always be a permission that I grant to someone to hurt me. Yes, as absurd as it may sound, this is exactly it. It shows how much I still do not know the mechanisms offered by the virtues to protect and liberate me; to feel worthy before myself and at peace with others. To continue on the Path, I needed to learn to be as gentle as wise men are; however, gentleness is only allowed to those who have the courage of warriors. The weak are left with violence or hurt.

It was necessary to redefine courage. For that, it was essential to understand my frustration. People only have over us the power that we give them, the inverse of our emotional imbalance, the result of ignorance about who we are, about the virtues that we have not yet learned to use. If anyone had the ability to hurt or disappoint me, it was only because of the enormous shadows, such as pride, envy, vanity and jealousy, daughters of selfishness and fear, that still influence my thinking and feeling. All resentment is rooted in ignorance; in ignorance about forgiveness, humility, compassion, mercy, sincerity, love and all other virtues with their immeasurable powers of protection and liberation; healing and light. For each shadow there is at least one virtue capable of transmuting it. Wisdom is not enough; it takes courage to live like this. This is my duty: understanding my struggle and making virtues my sword. It is necessary to unite the sage and the warrior in one person. The universe will take care of everything else. In summary, these were the lessons from the two chapters of Tao indicated by Li Tzu.

Suddenly I realized the sky was freckled with stars. I was tired, but a pleasant feeling of lightness enveloped me. I went to the inn and fell asleep that night. Early the next day, I headed to Li Tzu’s house. When passing through Midnight, the black cat just looked at me carelessly and went back to sleep. I took it as a good sign. The Taoist master finished his daily yoga session and motioned for me to wait. Then we went to the kitchen. While he was preparing tea, he commented that my energy had changed, it was clear. I talked about the conclusions I had drawn from the texts indicated and how I would use them in practice.

I said that Fred’s offenses should be disregarded due to the difficult moment of professional transition he was going through, a fact that could have generated some lack of emotional control. As for personal and professional criticism, I would assess them. Those that seemed fair to me would be used to promote the necessary changes, in an indispensable exercise of humility. The ones that I understood to be unwarranted, that might just reflect Fred’s possible internal mess, I would just disregard, out of love and compassion. After all, I also didn’t have perfection to offer to him. I would keep the doors of my heart and the agency open if he ever wanted to come back. Liking others does you a great good.

Regarding the festival, I explained that, if, on the one hand, the ads had been made and served by my agency during the period when Fred was an employee, it would be fair to conclude that I had the right to register the campaign at the festival. On the other hand, he was the intellectual author of the work. If I wanted to be honest, I would have to admit that there was justice in accepting that he used the ads in the contest. Basically, either decision would have its own justifications and be based on valid arguments. However, one would be driven by selfishness; the other, out of generosity. I could choose.

I told him that I would authorize Fred to compete in the festival with that campaign. I commented that, seen through good lenses, even in anonymity, if Fred won the prize I would also win. This was enough for me. Li Tzu smiled with satisfaction and commented: “More so, now, whatever the verdict of the festival, even if the campaign is not awarded, you are already the winner.” He shrugged and concluded: “Only the trophy might belong to another. You ‘won without fighting’, as Tao counsels.”

“Many will think that you were a coward in refusing the war proposed by the world, when, in fact, you showed little-known courage in waging the right fight, within yourself. Heaven recognizes value even though the world ignores it. Courage can be a tool of shadows or light. This will depend only on the feelings and the reasons that move it.”

I thanked for the changes that the Tao had provided me. The Taoist master warned: “Tao is just an ancient evolutionary instrument; there are several others. Using it to compose the song of life will always be your work.”

Kindly translated by Julia Reuter e Carvalho

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