Notes from the field: it’s only in the cold of winter

cold of winter

Given the turbulent times that Confucius lived in, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that there are plenty of passages in the Analects that resonate with the difficult times that we ourselves are experiencing.

The one I find most resonant is in 9.28, were Confucius quotes an ancient saying: “It’s only in the cold of winter that you realize that the pines and cypresses are the last to wither.” The key point he is making is that it is only when tough times arrive that people reveal their true character. While it’s all too easy to prosper in the soft warmth of summer without any real effort, it’s a lot more difficult to make it through the harsh cold of winter.

Even if we are able to find effective treatments and vaccines for Covid19 quickly, rebuilding the broken economy is going to be a Herculean task that will require all of us to work more closely together to get things back on track. This means rising above the petty (and all too often vicious) partisanship that has characterized so much of our political and cultural debate over the past few decades and carrying out a serious reform of the institutions that have shown themselves so sorely lacking in this current crisis.

For all his criticism of the corruption and decadence that he saw around him, Confucius was essentially an optimist who believed in the potential of humanity to improve its lot. Despite numerous personal setbacks, including fourteen years of exile, he kept on working towards this goal while many others gave up.

It is exactly this combination of resilience and hope that we all need to foster so that like the pines and cypresses we can see ourselves through the cold of winter and be ready to thrive when spring and summer arrive.

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