The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
Are rarely matched in the world
Chapter 43, Tao Te Ching
Softness is both a Tao principle and virtue. In this book, I am putting under the category of a Tao virtue because of its inherent power. The first two verses bring emphasis to the inherent power of using softness to overcome hardness. The most commonly used metaphor and easiest to understand is water. Water is soft to touch and has little substance when you try to pick it up. Stone is the commonly used metaphor for hardness and a material which has no openings. To appreciate the inherent power of softness penetrating something harness, take a look at the Grand Canyon in the American Southwest. Water has slowly worn away the hard and rocky plateau to create one of the great wonders of the world. It is also quite evident when you take a look at a sandy beach or sand bar. Water has reduced solid rock into tiny particles. The process begins with water slowly penetrating the hard surface of the stone. Slowly and patiently water seeps into the rock in a process that to disintegrate its structure. Wind and Sun, also without substance, assist the process until the solid stone is no longer there.
The power of softness is especially useful in dealing with many aspects of life. It is so applicable in everyday life. As a life strategy, it gives you a methodology for resolving hard problems. Use softness to penetrate the obstacle, get informed on what is going on. Be detached from the intended outcome and allow time chip away at the hardness. Let the Tao guide on your course. And one day, that mountain will be a big pile of sand.
One example is when dealing with some of the personality traits of the ego. Some of those hard characteristics might be stubbornness, anger, and aggression. The soft approach to these might be patience, non-reaction, or empathy.
Here is a story that I will share to reflect how softness can overcome hardness in interpersonal relationships.
In the city where I was living, there was a consignment shop that I affiliated with as a vendor. It was during the great recession. Times were hard, and people experienced a lot of stress trying to make ends meet. The owner and manager of this consignment shop had a challenging time trying to keep her business going. Her stress created a lot of tension among the people who worked there. Because of her anxiety, she was not a good manager, and retention was a problem. One of the more successful vendors, a lady who had a lot of experiencing in the antique market decide to leave and start her own business. She was a friendly and optimistic person who finally had enough of the stressful environment and opened up a similar business across the street. She was an immediate success. Most of the customers left the business of the cranky lady and started giving business to the new business across the street. Then many of the vendors, having had enough of the constant drama, left and came over to the new business too. It didn’t take long before the first business was in serious trouble with a lack of loyal customers and workers. One day which has been particularly bad for her, she got angry and marched across the street to have it out with the woman who had left and started the successful business. She threw open the door, walked up to the new store owner and begin to bless her out. Momentarily, she paused in her onslaught to take a breath. During her verbal attack, the other woman, the friendly optimistic and prosperous new store owner, smiled and said,
“Oh honey, I am so sorry you are having such a hard time. I know how difficult it is. Let me hug you”. She embraced the angry woman, who suddenly wilted and began to sob. She returned to her store, and before long it was closed and out of business. Later, she came to work at the new store for the friendly lady. The last time I saw them, they were both at peace and happy again.
In this true story, the friendly optimistic lady used a soft, non-reactive, empathetic and compassionate response to the hard attack. It is a classic case of wisdom vs. ego. Witnessing that event raised my spirit, and to this day, I keep that example in my mind as a strategy for dealing with hard personality types. I have told this story many times, and people have shared their own stories where they found it to be successful.
In this chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Wu Wei activates the inherent power of softness.
“From this, I know the benefits of unattached actions” verse 5 from above is talking about Wu Wei or “unattached actions.” Footnote
To see the inherent power consider this sample sentence:
Because she reacted softly with empathy and compassion, the woman stopped attacking her.
Verse 6, “The teaching without words
Are rarely matched in the world”
That woman taught me and everyone there how to use softness to overcome hardness for a beneficial outcome. We learned from her example. Later I asked her about it, and she said that she was living through her Christian conviction of “love thou neighbor.”
It takes self-discipline of ego control to choose softness. Self-control and ego management is the greater principle of sovereignty. In the moment of action, you have a choice. If you are mindful of ego, you can be detached from reacting. In that detached state, you can choose the wisdom of the Tao. In this case, the wisdom is the virtue of using softness to overcome hardness.