I have an app on my iPod called “23,000 Quotes.” When you open the app, a daily quote is randomly displayed on the screen. Today’s was attributed to Lao-Tzu, a Chinese philosopher who lived about 500 years before Christ. This “quote of the day” was one I’d heard before: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
That’s straightforward enough for me. What I think about when I read it is that no matter how large the goal, the task, there is a time when thought must cease and action begin if we are to accomplish something of substance.
From another vantage point, I read it as a comforting statement. The thought of a thousand miles is a lot to me, overwhelming even, especially if you’re walking. But if you break the “giant” into small pieces, a step at a time, it seems less insurmountable, whether you’re talking about recovery from a major illness, grief over the loss of someone close, or a life goal. All good thoughts we can take into our hearts and remember when facing a mountain of sorts.
As a matter of habit, after reading the daily quote, I usually scroll through other quotes by the same author. I flipped through a few more of Lao-Tzu’s and landed on this one: “The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.”
At first glance, it seems to be the very same quote, but at second, not so. In the first place, leagues are greater than miles in distance; we’re not sure exactly how much longer, however—it depends on what country of origin the person who submitted the quote is from and when in history the quote was first translated into English. The term “league” has been used to describe a range of distances, from 1.5 Roman miles to the current estimate of 3.8 miles, if you go with the 5,280-foot version.
But that doesn’t change the meaning of the original quote as much as the last part: “…begins from beneath your feet.”
The latter quote suggests nothing of action to me—it speaks instead of heart, of motivation, of courage—not of the journey itself, but the journeyman. It speaks of intent to act, the decision to act—not the action itself. It speaks of the push of God, not the pull—the nudge from within, not the attraction from without.
Which did Lao-Tzu set out to communicate? We don’t know—we can’t even be sure that he said it. One thing is clear—he would never have said it in English. The language didn’t exist when he lived. And the quotes were obviously submitted to the company who owns the iPod app by two different people, with two different takes—two quotes that traveled independent 2,500-year paths. I wonder if they’ll ever get together just to argue over which of their quotes was most true of Lao-Tzu or if they’ll go on with their lives, with no thought of the other, certain that each knows what Lao-Tzu was really talking about.
You know, Jesus didn’t speak English either, didn’t write anything down himself, as far as we know. Next time we tell someone “what Jesus said,” perhaps we should keep that in mind.