A few years ago, a friend of mine in Paris was taking the subway in the morning on her way to work. She felt something wrong with her backpack. She looked back, and at that moment saw a man taking her wallet out of her bag. She was scared, did not know what to do, and she started crying. The thief hesitated— then put the wallet back into my friend’s bag.
This story, which I learned from my friend during a visit to Paris in 2017, made me think a lot about human nature and self-cultivation.
According to the Confucian school of Chinese philosophy, all human beings are born with innate kindness. More importantly, we’re all born with an intuitive sense of right and wrong about what thoughts and actions align with this innate kindness. One way to view our life journey is to constantly ponder our thoughts as we interact with others, pursuing what’s right and abandoning what’s wrong. Cultivating ourselves and extending our innate kindness can be a powerful way to live a meaningful life.
The Paris subway thief’s intuitive knowledge told him that stealing a purse from an innocent lady was wrong—it was against his original kind nature. When he saw the victim’s distress and fear, he felt ashamed and woke up, and then he decided to correct his wrongdoing so he could feel peace of mind. He did not allow his innate kind nature to be obscured by his selfish desire. At that moment he was a sage.
Whether we’re a thief, sage, or an average person, everyone has selfish thoughts at times and is tempted to act on them. This gives us an opportunity to cultivate our selves. We can pause when we have a new thought, small or large, ask ourselves if it is in alignment with our innate kindness, and follow through only if our judgment tells us that it is.
The good news is that we all have room to improve ourselves in this way. By applying our intuitive knowledge and extending kindness(致良知), we gradually clear away selfish desire. The best and most practical place to do this is through daily affairs, large or small, as we interact with colleagues, family, community, and the world.
By keeping our innate kindness and wisdom about right and wrong in mind, we can create, refine and pursue both short-term and long-term goals that are in line with our true nature. In this way, we will fully develop our potential with tranquility and lasting happiness.
The ancient philosophers believed that through such practice, each of us can gradually restore our innate sense of connectedness with other people and, even with animals, plants and the entire universe. As they put it, by “manifesting our illustrious nature (明明德), we can reach our highest level (止于至善).” Any of us can do it. Confucian philosophy holds that “the street is full of sages (满街皆圣人),” which means that everyone has the potential to become a sage.
In this way, the story of a Paris subway thief, interpreted through the lens of Chinese philosophy, can be helpful to all of us as we ponder our life purpose and make resolutions for 2018 and beyond.