the journey of a thousand miles

One of the more frequently repeated lines from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu, often given as ‘The journal of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, occurs in Chapter 64.   My favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu is the 1972 translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, and they give a slightly different translation, namely ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts under one’s feet.’  And I know why this is my favorite translation.  It is the one that mom and dad had on the bookshelf in the den, and so it was the one with which I first became acquainted.

I have always like this line, not merely because of the truth of it, but also because I like wandering around in its depths.  In order to do something, we first have to start something.  If we don’t take that first step, then there is no journey, merely the rumination on the journey yet to be.

But beginnings are only part of the story.  I’m whether I’m interpreting correctly, and in fact I’m fairly confident that I’m not, but I’m also not sure the extent to which it matters.  I remember when I was a younger man, reading Shelley’s Ozymandias for the first time, never having encountered it before, not knowing its connection to history, not knowing the baggage carried by its main character.  I unfortunately can’t remember the interpretation I gave, but I do remember feeling a bit put out at being told I’d not interpreted correctly.  But I don’t want to engage here in a long discussion here about the life that a piece of writing takes on after it leaves its author’s pen.  Perhaps another time.

For me, part of the what I understand from this line in Chapter 64 is more than just taking the first step.  After all, for a journey of a thousand miles, the length of the remaining journey is not significantly diminished by that first step.  There are a lot of steps remaining in the journey, and they are all difficult, and all for different ways.  Taking the first step can be hard, particularly if we have been procrastinating taking that first step.  But the tenth, the hundredth, the ten thousandth steps, these can all be difficult as well.

We can rarely see the whole journey from that first step.  We might carry with us the picture of the shining city on the hill that is our destination, but there is a lot of ground between here and there, and we have no idea of what any of that ground consists of.  Our journey may pale in comparison to Frodo’s but then we don’t have the author on our side.

This happens a lot in the research I do.  I start with a great idea, what I feel at the time is a remarkably prescient insight into the nature of the world, mathematics and reality, only to find that while it is a beautiful idea, it is a false beauty, as there is a mathematical reason why it can’t be made to work.  Not that it’s merely hard or blindingly difficult or more than I or other mortals can do, but actually impossible.  But like misinterpreting a piece of poetry, I’m not sure the extent to which this matters.  We can still learn a lot from all of our journeys, successful or not, by paying attention to the feel of the ground beneath our feet and the wind through the trees.

Another line later in Chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching, one much less often quoted, notes that ‘People usually fail when they are on the verge of success. So give as much care to the end as to the beginning; Then there will be no failure.’  And I like this line too, at least as much as the earlier line, because I feel it is the more interesting line.  I have a stack of half or mostly written stories and other projects, all of which deserve the care I gave them when I first started them and brought them into this world.  And so let’s see what we can do with one of them this afternoon.

~ by Jim Anderson on 19 March 2017.

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