turning back

Knowing man
and staying woman,
be the riverbed of the world.
Being the world’s riverbed
of eternal unfailing power
is to go back again to be newborn.

Knowing light
and staying dark,
be a pattern to the world.
Being the world’s pattern
of eternal unerring power
is to go back again to boundlessness.

Knowing glory
and staying modest,
be the valley of the world.
Being the world’s valley
of eternal inexhaustible power
is to go back again to the natural.

Natural wood is cut up
and made into useful things,
Wise souls are used
to make into leaders.
Just so, a great carving
is done without cutting.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The simplicity of Lao Tzu’s language can present an almost impenetrable density of meaning. The reversals and paradoxes in this great poem are the oppositions of the yin and yang–male/female, light/dark, glory/modesty–but the “knowing and being” of them, the balancing act, results in neither stasis nor synthesis. The riverbed in which power runs leads back, the patterns of power lead back, the valley where power is contained leads back–to the forever new, endless, straightforward way. Reversal, recurrence, are the movement, and yet the movement is onward.

Le Guin introduces the terms yin and yang–terms most people have probably heard but never used properly–and it should click into place with all the previous paradoxes Lao Tzu’s presented in the Tao Te Ching. It’s why paradoxes make sense. Because the world is not just one way. It is a balance of things. And even that which seems absolute, like light or dark, hold pieces of each other within one another.

There is light in darkness. There is darkness in light.

A shadow can only exist because light is cast, for example.

And so the Tao asks us to balance life. Opposites have a way of meeting and melding.

Of course, there are times this isn’t true, and I must admit it’s difficult to think of the Tao and these lessons while my country descends into a visible totalitarian state. For decades we’ve been a totalitarian state in many ways, but it was always beneath the surface. Just deep enough that it could be denied if necessary.

Now we’re out in the open and it’s terrifying. More terrifying than I thought it would be. I thought things could never be worse than this subtle subterfuge where we pretend to be a democracy and free people while we decimate our own citizens and people around the world. Our imperialism has displaced and killed millions. Our power structures enslave and murder millions within america.

But now that we’re standing on the world stage and shedding our dark cloak of democracy for one bright and vibrant that screams Power, the world has become much scarier.

Because people I know are already being effected. Being crushed.

And it’s hard to see the balance to this.

It’s why I began these daily reflections on the Tao in the first place. To find another way. A way to live and resist. A way to fight without violence.

I hoped to find a new way in these ancient yet prescient words. But I don’t know if I can.

I don’t know how to neutralize this open wave of repugnance, of violence.

Of course, I see what’s happening. The way to resist is to mobilize. This has always been true. And so maybe the reason I can’t find another way is because the only way already exists.

Mobilization. Create a critical mass of human bodies and human empathy and we can turn back this terror. This endless and old and recklessly new terror.

And even while I seek to find a balance in this, I fear there is none beyond the simple confluence of authority and anarchy.

If our leaders demand we strip ourselves of humanity, we must cling to it harder, cloak ourselves in humanness, and link arms, screaming wildly that we will not accept this horror.

We will not break.

We will not compromise.

We demand to be human and we will not stop until the inhumane is turned back, thwarted, cowering in the bright lights of their ruined authority.

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