November 2016 Articles

It’s Not the Path You Think

The PathBy Jennifer Margulis

Christine Gross-Loh ’90 is jetlagged. She’s just returned from the kind of book tour that would turn any author green with envy. The dark circles under her eyes, she explains when I reach her by Skype at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are because she and her co-author have spent the last two weeks giving lectures and talking to journalists about their new book in the United Kingdom, Portugal, Holland, and Belgium, all at the publishers’ expense.

The book in question is The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. It is based on the unorthodox ideas about Chinese philosophy that Michael Puett, professor of Chinese history, explores in Harvard’s third-most-popular undergraduate class, Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory, which enrolls a whopping 700 students a semester.

In Gross-Loh’s previous book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, she examined what American educators and parents can learn from cultural traditions around the world. She visited a school in Germany where unsupervised youngsters were using knives and another in Japan where teachers showed the children how to make play guns.

Five months after that book came out, in October 2013, Gross-Loh wrote an article about Puett’s course for The Atlantic. She thought the subject was interesting, sure. But she had no idea it would go viral. Several major New York publishers approached Puett, eager to know if he had plans to write a book. So he and Gross-Loh—who was Puett’s former student (she earned her Ph.D. in East Asian History from Harvard in 2001)—decided to team up.

Arguing that our conventional understanding of ancient Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi as rigid traditionalists is incorrect, The Path casts them instead as radical thinkers who understood deeply how messy and difficult real life could be. The Path suggests that we misunderstand human nature when we try to be true to our authentic selves (as Americans are wont to do). Instead we should, “recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly,” the authors write. Gross-Loh contends that the ancient Chinese philosophers understood that we would all be happier and feel more fulfilled if we threw away the idea that there is only one right way to do things—one plan for life. As complicated, multifaceted, and complex humans, the life paths we are following are anything but linear.

“It’s not a prescriptive book,” Gross-Loh explains. Soft-spoken yet assertive, she pauses before answering my questions, admitting that the main points of the book are difficult to concretize. “It’s a philosophy book. It turns our ideas about influence, power, and decision-making on their heads.”

Through small acts of kindness and cultivating your best self, “you can turn the whole world in the palm of your hand,” Mencius famously wrote. The Path also insists you do not need to be outgoing and extroverted to be powerful and influence others.

Painfully shy growing up in a Korean family in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Gross-Loh originally planned to major in English at Bryn Mawr. She became interested in history, she says, because it brought all of her passions together—archeology, an interest in the past, a desire to better understand the impact of the past on the present, and a love of writing. “I felt like I was broken out of this insular world that I had come from, through my interactions with the professors, who were lovers of other cultures,”

Gross-Loh says of her time at Bryn Mawr. “I learned what it meant to immerse yourself and explore different cultures. That’s what started my journey to where I am now.” She spent one year studying Russian, later becoming fluent in Japanese and Korean. Her four children are also bilingual in Japanese and English, and the family spends part of each year in Tokyo.

An international bestseller, The Path is being published in 23 different languages. Laura Simeon ’89, who first met Gross-Loh in John Salmon’s history class at Bryn Mawr 27 years ago and has been a close friend ever since, believes the excitement about the book is well deserved. “The book forces you to take a step back and say, ‘What can we now question about our own lives? What are we assuming is true that really isn’t?’” Simeon says. Questions to ponder as we each meander down our own path.