Is it really a philosophy book if it has a section entitled “The Importance of Loafing”? Harvard scholar, Taoist, and modernist Lin Yutang wrote The Importance of Living to express his highly subjective, personal feelings after years of studying ancient Chinese texts, and created a wonderfully slow-going yet radiantly clear guide to the simple life. Published in 1937, this was one of the original “don’t worry, be happy” books. The Chinese philosopher here expounds on the mindset people need to develop in order to have a more successful and peaceful life. Taking walks, drinking tea, long talks with friends are all important to Lin, whose stories and retellings of Taoist classics meander away from his points, find new ones, and remind us to enjoy the life that’s all around us without needless worry.
Lin’s prose is gentle, like the conversation of a favorite lazy uncle who is more at home sipping lemonade on the back porch than gulping lattes between meetings. The sincerity of his humility is surprising to a reader used to postmodern writers who seem to pride themselves on their self-abasement. Though Lin deliberately avoided fame and notoriety, correctly observing that it invariably leads to troubles, one can only hope that his wisdom, timelier than ever, finds a wider audience among today’s too-busy-to-breathe global culture. His philosophy, more practical and enjoyable than the usual Western writings on the subject, reminds us all of the vital importance of simply living. Nonetheless, he is immensely quotable, even today. Here are a few selections:
On America: “The three great American vices seem to be efficiency, punctuality, and the desire for achievement and success. They are the things that make the Americans so unhappy and so nervous”.
On Art: “Art is both creation and recreation. Of the two ideas, I think art as recreation or as sheer play of the human spirit is more important”.
On Living In Cities: “How many of us are able to distinguish between the odors of noon and midnight, or of winter and summer, or of a windy spell and a still one? If man is so generally less happy in the cities than in the country, it is because all these variations and nuances of sight and smell and sound are less clearly marked and lost in the general monotony of gray walls and cement pavements”.
On Food: “Our lives are not in the lap of the gods, but in the lap of our cooks”.
On Being Taxed (quoting a Confucius anecdote) “Once Confucius was walking on the mountains and he came across a woman weeping by a grave. He asked the woman what here sorrow was, and she replied, “We are a family of hunters. My father was eaten by a tiger. My husband was bitten by a tiger and died. And now my only son!” “Why don’t you move down and live in the valley? Why do you continue to live up here?” asked Confucius. And the woman replied, “But sir, there are no tax collectors here!” Confucius added to his disciples, “You see, a bad government is more to be feared than tigers.”
On Travel: “No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow”.
On Wisdom: “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials”.
Lin Yutang remains that enigma, a classical Chinese scholar, a gentleman. We can all learn from his gentle prose today.