Newsletter - October 2022
No Need to Prove Points
“Wise men don’t need to prove their point; men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.” (Lao Tzu)
Is Lao Tzu just being witty? Perhaps. But his main point is that wisdom has little to do with proving points (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 81). We may recall “Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master’s way” (chapter 43). When you dwell in the Tao there’s no need to impress anyone with your wisdom. Just be who you are.
Why is it so often important to us that we “prove our point”? What does that phrase mean anyway? Is a proven point somehow better than an unproven point? If so, then on what scale are we measuring both “proven” and “better”? Do we think that proven points are right and unproven ones are wrong? Or that a good score at point-proving somehow makes us “wise”? You could even ask, am I right now trying to prove the point that point-proving is a puzzle?
Actually, I don’t think I’m so much trying to “prove” anything as observe that the need to prove a point can often lead us to unhelpful places. Trying to score wisdom points to impress others is certainly one unhelpful place. But even if we’re not trying to demonstrate our wisdom, why is it that we become so attached to our points of view that we feel the need to “prove” them to others?
Note that this doesn’t apply to everything. Some things are unarguably black and white. For example, whether or not two plus two equals four is not really a matter of viewpoint. Any math teacher can “prove” that to me. But a great deal of life and living is not black and white – it is distinctly gray. So why do I need to prove my version of grayness to you? Perhaps one reason is that I’m actually unsure and need the reassurance of having convinced someone else. (Although a little thought shows this is not necessarily solid ground for reassurance.) But a more important question is, why does it matter? And why is it unhelpful to think that it does?
I think the short answers are as follows. In many cases, point-proving really does not matter. And, to answer to the second question, the main reason it is unhelpful is because it tends to emphasize differences – in this case, between your point of view and mine. (Unless, of course, your point-proving is a spectator sport done simply to impress me – in which case what I think doesn’t matter as long as I’m impressed.)
The solution to the puzzle lies in watching what Lao Tzu’s Master does. I think he is acutely aware of this risk of emphasizing differences. Anything that draws attention to what he says or does runs this risk, which is why he sidesteps it whenever he can. Hence “Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master’s way” (chapter 43). Why does his way work so well?
It works because it means there are no words for you to disagree with, or try to prove him wrong. There are no particular actions for you to comment on or have an opinion about or judge. There’s just a living, breathing example of a human being “moving in the world while dwelling in the Tao” as the saying goes. The Master isn’t trying to prove anything. He doesn’t need to prove his point to anyone. In fact, he doesn’t even have a point that he’s trying to prove. He certainly isn’t trying to impress. Dwelling in the Tao is much simpler than that. I think this is what wisdom looks like when we see it.
For me, there are two examples of where I can learn from this. The first example is when I find myself unreasonably attached to “my” viewpoint. By saying “unreasonably” I’m suggesting my viewpoints are open to reason, which means given good reasons I will change my viewpoint. While I certainly like to think this is true, I know I don’t live up to this ideal all the time. In this case, there’s nothing unhelpful going on as long as our conversation is a mutually respectful one.
However, the second example has nothing to do with reasons or with changing viewpoints. It lies simply in allowing another person’s viewpoint to be what it is, regardless of whether it is the same as mine. As long as we’re not discussing whether or not two plus two equals four, then what exactly is at stake? There is nothing to be proved one way or another. Each person’s viewpoint is what it is. Perhaps the wisdom lies in looking beyond the need to prove points. I think that’s why Lao Tzu says “men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.”
What’s an example that’s true for you where you find yourself drawn into the point-proving game? Have you found good ways of detecting when this is happening? Believing without question that one point is right while another is wrong is certainly one of them. Can you think of any other good early-warning signs you can share with the rest of us?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
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