Confucius was striking some stone chimes in Wei. A man carrying a basket passed in front of the gate of the house where he was staying and said: “Whoever is playing music like that seems to have something else on his mind!” A little while later, he added: “What a tiresome racket! If no one understands what you are trying to say, keep it to yourself!”
When the water is deep, wade through it with your clothes on;
When the water is shallow, hold up the hem of your gown.”
Confucius said: “He certainly doesn’t mince his words! I don’t have any response to that!”
The more you obsess about a problem, the more you risk losing sight of a solution. Instead of worrying about how you’re going to come up with enough money to fund the construction of a multi-million-dollar bridge to cross the river, set your mind free to explore other alternatives. Or better still talk to other people to find out their perspectives. When it comes to generating creative ideas, two or more heads are far more effective than one – not to mention a lot more fun to work with than banging your own head against the wall.
This article features a translation of Chapter 39 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.
(1) This is the third passage in Book 14 in which someone hints that Confucius should either give up or at least change his approach to his quest to restore the Zhou kingdom to its former glories. See also 14.32 and 14.38.
(2) The man carrying a basket is likely an itinerant ascetic who has withdrawn from the world out of despair at its depravity and corruption. Given that he is able to quote from poem 34 of the Book of Songs, there’s no way that he could be a common peasant. With his comments on the quality of the tune Confucius is banging out on the stone chimes and his quote from the Book of Songs, itinerant not only correctly diagnoses the malaise that is afflicting the sage but also suggests that a change in strategy is required. Recognizing that he is right, Confucius is unable to fire back a fitting response for once.
I took this image at the Temple of the Duke of Zhou in Qufu. The duke was Confucius’s great hero and role model as a result of his tireless efforts to the establish the foundation of the fledgling kingdom of Zhou while acting a regent to the young King Cheng. You can read more about the temple here.