being simple

Run the country by doing what’s expected.
Win the war by doing the unexpected.
Control the world by doing nothing.
How do I know that?
By this.

The more restrictions and prohibitions in the world,
the poorer people get.
The more experts the country has
the more of a mess it’s in.
The more ingenious the skillfull are,
the more monstrous their inventions.
The louder the call for law and order,
the more the thieves and con men multiply.

So a wise leader might say:

I practice inaction, and the people look after themselves.
I love to be quiet, and the people themselves find justice.
I don’t do business, and the people prosper on their own.
I don’t have wants, and the people themselves are uncut wood.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

A strong political statement of the central idea of wu wei, not doing, inaction.

My “monstrous” is literally “new.” New is strange, and stare is uncanny. New is bad. Lao Tzu is deeply and firmly against changing things, particularly in the name of progress. He would make an Iowa farmer look flighty. I don’t think he is exactly anti-intellectual, but he considers most uses of the intellect to be pernicious, and all plans for improving things to be disastrous. Yet he’s not a pessimist. No pessimist would say that people are able to look after themselves, be just, and prosper on their own. No anarchist can be a pessimist.

Uncut wood–here liked to the human soul–the uncut, uncarved, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial.

I find myself both disagreeing and nodding my head in vigorous approval of what Lao Tzu’s saying here. The last stanza is a clear and beautiful and hopeful presentation of anarchism.

The second stanza is where he seems to be against intellectual progress, and it’s hard for me to take that seriously, since I believe quite strongly in technology–even if I see how most of it is used for malicious uses–and intellectual growth.

I think Lao Tzu is a bit less anti-intellectual than this poems makes him out to be, since he encourages one to be like a child: open and ever-curious.

I mean, that is what intellectual growth looks like.

I imagine this has a much more important political context in the time that he lived. Like any humans who has ever humaned, Lao Tzu is reacting to his time and place in history, in the world.

Oddly, I think it may apply today more than ever. Though maybe that’s not true, as there have always been worthless experts, foolish intellectuals, malicious power-seekers.

I think this applies especially to the current state of world politics.

We are seeing the active refusal of experts and facts. We’re ignoring, in a very active way, the world we live in and the context history has left us, or that we have helped forge.

US belligerence to Russia right now can be seen as a lot of experts actively ignoring what made them experts in the chase for influence and site views. We have experts endlessly shuffling the papers, trying to obfuscate the fact that Trump is a homegrown american political force. While Russia very well could have assisted in getting him elected, it’s absurd to believe that Russia’s plan would be to trust such a reckless and exploitable wreck of a robber baron to defeat seasoned political professionals.

That Trump won is not because of Putin masterminding some impossible situation into being. It’s because we created Trump out of excrement, flapping lips, and the left over hide of Joe McCarthy and Winston Churchill.

Someone will balk at the Churchill comparison, but the man was a megalomaniac and a fascist who only opposed Hitler because Hitler was going about totalitarianism in a decidedly unBritish way, and was managing to launch itself past British superiority. Churchill was a petty, bitter old man with an incredible sense of entitlement, and incredible access to power based on the accident of his geography and the family he was born to. He raked his opponents through the mud while reacting to any opposition to his policies as a personal attack. He saw military might as the only thing that really mattered, and let the poor and suffering die while he refused the very real threats upon their lives.

The biggest difference between Churchill and Trump is one of wit and manners.

They are exactly the kind of leaders we should try to avoid. Violent, petty men, so awash in their own egos that they see any differing opinion as a declaration of war. A war they’re willing to play as dirty and as recklessly as possible to get their way.

While we have more information available to us than any generation of humans to ever live, we know so little. Knowing history becomes a radical act. A radical protest.

Our experts in the West have led us into disastrous wars, crippled the livelihoods of millions, and used ideology (capitalism) as a hammer and sickle to smash the citizenry into a pulp to be slurped up by industrialists.

I love technology. Love the potential it offers. Yet what do we do with it?

We spy on our citizens and the citizens of every nation. We create more and more sophisticated weapons. We solidify rather than tear down systems of oppression and violence. We make war palatable to people by cloaking it in automation. We cripple people’s ability to survive in an economy that, on paper, is constantly improving.

If the US economy is doing so well, why do we have so many impoverished workers? Why are people avoiding the hospitals, not because they think doctors are liars, but because they can’t afford even basic medication or medical assistance?

We are the wealthiest we’ve ever been, and yet we hoard this wealth, this intelligence. We hoard it while our brothers and sisters starve in the street, leaving their children to steal from other suffering citizens, just so maybe they can eat or feed their families.

I don’t think this is an incorrect way to read this poem. It may even be close to what Lao Tzu meant when he wrote it 2,500 years ago.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing if that’s even remotely true, since we’re not even sure if Lao Tzu was a person. But the striking way this poem applies to us today makes me believe China may have had similar problems at that time. Especially when you consider he may have been a contemporary of Confucius, another influential Chinese thinker who advocated totalitarian tactics.

A very different way of seeing the world, that. And so I would not be surprised if men like Confucius are the kind of men Lao Tzu’s speaking about in this poem.

Of course, once again, that’s all conjecture.

Even so, you don’t need to accept every word said here to still think there’s use in what’s being said. And I think the first and third stanzas are powerful and valid ways of thinking. But it’s the third that I’m attached to, and the one I hold onto. The rest, as far as I’m concerned, are worth thinking about, but maybe only that.

woolf waves

I’ve been listening to Max Richter’s glorious new album. It’s inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf. Specifically, Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. It’s tremendous, as are all things Richter does. The final movement–and perhaps his most emotional piece in years–is in the above video. It begins with the reading of Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, which I’ll copy in full here:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

It’s always struck me as a profound and devastating statement of love and illness.

I don’t have a lot to say about it, really. Or, I do, but I’ve said it before in a dozen other blog posts over the seven years I’ve had this site.

I’ve been writing my novel to this album. It’s a completely normal thing for me to listen to a Richter album on repeat for days, and he’s been the soundtrack to more than a few of the novels I’ve written. I don’t know if my work is capturing anything as well or as beautifully as Woolf or Richter, but I’m very pleased with the words coming out of me lately.

I feel fortunate that I’ve managed to avoid any serious bouts with depression over the last years, and it’s certainly what’s allowed me to be so productive.

I’m nearly 40,000 words into the new novel. I’m hoping to have it finished before May, which seems doable, even though the novel may balloon up to about 200,000 words.

As is almost always the case, I sort of saw this as a short novel, but I quickly grow comfortable with the size of this novel. I said that I’d keep it underwraps this time, rather than share the process of writing this novel while I write it, and I think I’ll keep to that.

I will say, though, that every chapter presents a very difficult challenge. It’s the kind of writing I simply was not capable of writing even a year ago. It’s the kind of writing that is exhausting, but ultimately rewarding. Complex yet simple. Dangerous yet loving.

I want this novel to be a surprise, and I think it will be. I think I’m doing something that is rarely, if ever, done, and that pleases me. I’m also writing in a mode that I’ve never written in before. In many ways, I think it’s my most daring and most normal novel, and I like that juxtaposition quite a lot.

 

mysteries of power

Who knows
doesn’t talk.
Who talks
doesn’t know.
Closing the openings,
shutting doors,

blunting edge,
loosing bond,
dimming light,
be one with the dust of the way.
So you come to the deep sameness.

Then you can’t be controlled by love
or by rejection.
You can’t be controlled by profit
or by loss.
You can’t be controlled by praise
or humiliation.
Then you have honor under heaven.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

A poem full of what should now be familiar as Taoist statements. Paradoxes. Oblique phrases wrapped in simplicity.

But it really is this simple. Those who talk all the time reveal very little knowledge. Those who move and shake and can’t stop speaking blunt your own sensibilities, loosen your own sense of control, and dim your life. I think often of social media as a contrast to what the Tao asks of us. The deluge of information blunts our ability to respond, to react. It blurs our ability to see what matters. It makes us slave to praise, to social reinforcements. It makes our fear of rejection, of humiliation, our anxieties about loss and money all run amok.

There is a fight going on within our nation, and I wish I could use less aggressive terms for it.

Perhaps just using the word conflict is enough. But there is a conflict in our nation, and most are clinging to social media to remain part of the conversation, to make sure we have the most relevant up to date hot takes to pepper their status updates with.

But when you live in the forest, it’s hard to see anything but thousands of different trees. Sometimes you need to walk up the hill to see that these are not thousands of distinct trees, but one forest.

This will bring you more peace and serenity, as well as making you more effective.

By all means, remain connected, but make sure to take a step back at least once a day, and try to synthesize all the information you’re receiving. Try to fit it together. Because everything is connected. Especially in politics. Most of the issues stem from a few sources, though they lead to myriad problems.

Find the sources. Focus your energy there.

 

the sign of the mysterious

Being full of power
is like being a baby.
Scorpions don’t sting,
tigers don’t attack,
eagles don’t strike.
Soft bones, weak muscles,
but a firm grasp.
Ignorant of the intercourse
or man and woman,
yet the baby penis is erect.
True and perfect energy!
All day long screaming and crying,
but never getting hoarse.
True and perfect harmony!

You know harmony
is to know what’s eternal.
To know what’s eternal
is enlightenment.
Increase of life is full of portent:
the strong hearts exhausts the vital breath.
The full-grown is on the edge of age.
Not the Way.
What’s not the Way soon dies.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

As a model for the Taoist, the baby is in many ways ideal: totally unaltruistic, not interested in politics, business, or the proprieties, weak, soft and able to scream placidly for hours without wearing itself out (its parents are another matter). The baby’s unawareness of poisonous insects and carnivorous beasts means that such dangers simply do not exist for it. (Again, its parents are a different case.)

As a metaphor of the Tao, the baby embodies the eternal beginning, the ever-springing source. “We come, trailing clouds of glory,” Wordsworth says; and Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” No Peter Pan-ish refusal to grow up is involved, no hunt for the fountain of youth. What is eternal is forever young, never grows old. But we are not eternal.

It is in this sense that I understand how the natural, inevitable cycle of youth, growth, mature vigor, age, and decay can be “not the Way.” The Way is more than the cycle of any individual life. We rise, flourish, fail. The Way never fails. We are waves. It is the sea.

I can say nothing better than that about this, or about the Tao.

And so I think I’ll leave it at that.

some rules

Well planted is not uprooted,
well kept is not lost.
The offerings of the generations
to the ancestors will not cease.

To follow the way yourself is real power.
To follow it in the family is abundant power.
To follow it in the community is steady power.
To follow it in the whole country is lasting power.
To follow it in the world is universal power.

So in myself I see what self is,
in my household I see what family is,
in my town I see what community is,
in my nations I see what a country is,
in the world I see what is under heaven.

How do I know the world is so?
By this.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Here we see how the Tao is like a seed. It grows from the self to the family, the community, and on and on. The connection between self-improvement and communal improvement becomes demonstrated.

This is how the Tao creates a better world. It would be nice if we could just turn the world into a utopia overnight, but the Tao Te Ching shows that this is a gradual and evolving process. We must make small influences. If enough of them come together, it creates a ripple through the community, and that ripple becomes a wave over a nation.

This is something that I’ve been driving at in these reflections on the Way. The first half of the Tao Te Ching seems often concerned with power. With self mastery, with personal improvement, and then the power wielded by authorities, by leaders. Here we see how the world changes through you. Because your actions influence those around you, it makes sense for change to happen on a personal level. Following the way makes you a teacher, a leader, and it’s through following the Tao that others see this demonstrated.

When you act in accordance with the Tao, people will follow you. It will first be those who are closest to you. Your family. And then, as they follow the Tao, you will all become teachers and leaders, thereby shifting a community.

If only following the Tao were so simple! We wouldn’t have any problems at all.

And it is, of course, complicated by the somewhat difficult simplicity of the Tao. We are asked to be still, quiet, patient, to act without acting. We are asked to be happy, to find contentment.

It seems so simple! And yet, we are humans in a world gone made with desire and anxiety. I imagine it’s never been harder to be a Taoist than right now, with so much in your daily life to distract you, to fill you with pain and anxiety.

Since the election, there’s been a real focus on civil engagement, and I think this is the perfect time for the Tao to be highlighted. For it asks that we change our community. That we reimagine the world, and then create it, for the Tao is a generative process, a creative source.

And so I’m excited by what I see these days, and it’s what keeps bringing me back to the Tao Te Ching, to Lao Tzu.

insight

If my mind’s modest,
I walk the great way.
Arrogance
is all I fear.

The great way is low and plain,
but people like shortcuts over the mountains.

The palace is full of splendor
and the fields are full of weeds
and the granaries are full of nothing.

People wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,
carrying weapons,
drinking a lot and eating a lot,
having a lot of things, a lot of money:
shameless thieves.
Surely their way
isn’t the way.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

So much for capitalism.

That sort of sums up a lot of Taoism, really.

Stay on the low road and enjoy the beauty of the mountains, the rivers, the plains, the valleys.

back to the beginning

The beginning of everything
is the mother of everything.
Truly to know the mother
is to know her children,
and truly to know the children
is to turn back to the mother.
The body comes to its ending
but there is nothing to fear.

Close the openings,
shut the doors,
and to the end of life
nothing will trouble you.
Open the openings,
be busy with business,
and to the end of life
nothing can help you.

Insight sees the insignificant.
Strength knows how to yield.
Use the way’s light, return to its insight,
and so keep from going too far.
That’s how to practice what’s forever.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

This chapter on the themes of return and centering make circles within itself and throughout the book, returning to phrases from other poems, turning them round the center. A center which is everywhere, a circle whose circumference is infinite…

Find stillness and peace in your life. Then you will hear Tao, will feel it. An infinite mother, and we are her finite children. All the world, all the universe, is her finite child.

The question becomes: how does this apply to my life? How do I read the Tao Te Ching and make that matter? Should it matter? Does it matter?

My answer to all of them is sort of a shrug. It only matters to the degree that you want it to matter.

That being said, ways that I have been trying to make an active step in my life over the last couple months is to turn away from the parts of my life that are mostly just noise. For me, that largely means disconnecting myself from the bubble that is internet discourse. Of course, this sort of sounds absurd when I’m writing this online, and you readers probably only stumbled across this post because it gets shared and published on my facebook and twitter pages automatically.

And there are times when I still pop my head into facebook and twitter. Though I tend to keep these to under a minute. Partly because when you’re not swimming in that stream of constant information and feedback, it becomes monstrously difficult to even parse what’s happening in anyone’s life.

And I think, for me, that’s why it’s been so useful to largely disconnect from those spaces. It wasn’t good for me. Studies keep showing that it’s generally not good for any human to spend a lot of time on any social media, as it seems to increase anxiety and depression. That’s not to say it’s an incorrect behavior or even one that I think you’re foolish to persist in, but for me, personally, I’ve seen the positive effects of not existing in that continual deluge of constant information.

Other things I’ve been trying to do: be less passive with my time. Chelsea and I have a bad habit of just turning on netflix and then opening up our laptops while we let our screens dictate our evenings. This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to stop. There are still too many nights when we do exactly that. But we’re trying to be better.

Part of it is just being more selective with what we watch. Not just turning something on as a background distraction, but choosing to watch things–even silly, frivolous things–that we actually want to watch and experience. The biggest factor there is closing our laptops and watching the show or movie together.

That’s not a solution either, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The more fruitful and important step is to do things with our time that adds value to our lives. For me, that’s been drawing fictional maps and writing and even playing videogames, which is something I’ve always loved but have not done very much in the last decade. For Chelsea, that’s been building furniture and various other DIY projects, but also, interestingly, learning more about make up.

When you hear that someone’s really into make up, it sounds frivolous or stupid or vain. But I think that’s a shallow way to look at anything. Any single activity, to the uninitiated or uninterested, appears to be a waste of time. But make up is a creative process. It’s not something I’ve often thought about, but it’s been interesting to see Chelsea progress at it. She never used to care about make up or things of that nature, but she’s found a value in it. A creative outlet that also has helped her self-esteem, and made her feel more confident.

And it would be easy to read what I just said and think to yourself, Her vanity makes her feel better about herself? But I think that’s a demeaning way to look at it, or at least a vile depiction of what gives one confidence and value.

It’s not vanity for Chelsea, but personal value. It’s something she’s always felt deficient at (make up application, not her own appearance), and so becoming more confident and better at this activity as made her just simply feel better. Her face is becoming a canvas for her, and she’s learning a lot about her own face, and about her own creativity.

I find it really interesting as a sort of sideline observer. Like any burgeoning interest, she’s enthusiastic and experimental. Not all experiments are successful, but learning what doesn’t work is just as important as learning what does work.

I think these things are, in a way, outward expressions of the Tao. Living intentionally, and with balance. Finding pleasure and joy and enrichment in your life.

These are political things, too. Learning and growing are acts of resistance. Finding value is an act of resistance. Persistence is an act of resistance. Our protest may be small in scope, but it’s a first step. To live intentionally, to live with calmness and clarity is a radical step. And it is a first step. A starting point.

So remember that resistance to authority is more than carrying a sign or sharing information on facebook, or even living every moment as a political struggle. These simple actions build into greater actions. Being a kind and thoughtful member of your community–whether that community is geographical or ideological–is a radical step.

And these are parts of what we’re doing. The listing of acts of kindness are, I think, a trivialization of what’s needed, because kindness isn’t a performance. It’s a demonstration. To care for those around you is a radical act during a time of great selfishness and tyranny. And so that’s part of living intentionally for us. To remember that the world is greater than our lives, and that our simple actions can be like seeds that blossom into greater actions, or even just bear fruits of kindness in the behavior of others.

nature, nurture

The Way bears them;
power nurtures them;
their own being shapes them;
their own energy completes them.
And not one of the ten thousand things
fails to hold the Way sacred
or to obey its power.

Their reverence for the Way
and obedience to its power
are unforced and always natural.
For the Way gives them life;
its power nourishes them,
mothers and feeds them,
completes and matures them,
looks after them, protects them.

To have without possessing,
do without claiming,
lead without controlling:
this is mysterious power.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

True power comes from inspiring others to follow you, not from forcing them to listen to you.

It’s why autocrats lean so heavily on physical force and intimidation. But their power initially comes from people choosing to give them power. With many, especially modern autocrats, that power comes from mass media. They create an image of a person and cultivate it for views, which means ratings, which means money. And so they become complicit members of this autocratic power. Mass media so often collaborates with autocrats that it can be hard to distinguish between propaganda and actual news. Or, that’s true for many.

Creating an autocrat either comes through a coup or through mass media crafting a narrative about a potential autocrat. They make him someone that every day people want to believe in. They see the autocrat as a way out of their current misery.

And there are always miserable people. Millions and millions and millions of them. Mass media collaborates with autocrats to fashion the image of a savior. And because these are the same voices who give you the news, you may not realize they’re collaborating with the power system at all, and you definitely might not realize that they are creating that system of power, giving it the ears of millions and millions who just want a change. Any change.

Populism often gets grouped into a lot of unpleasant connotations, but there’s nothing inherently bad or even frightening for someone to give voice to millions.

Cesar Chavez and Gandhi did this. They were populists working against a totalitarian power. They did so to varying degrees of success.

The seductive power of populists is that this power is freely given by people, which is a true kind of power. It’s given to you willingly, and that empowers those who raise you up. They believe their voice and frustrations are being embodied.

And most autocrats ride this wave. It’s also why they may not realize that they’ve lost their power until it’s too late. They believe (for good reason) that the new power system belongs to them.

Of course, by the time they want to take this power back from the reigning autocrat, systems of violence and intimidation are already well entrenched, making it impossible for them to take back what they gave. Often, this is because they gave and assisted in creating these systems of violence and intimidation. They supported silencing the press, attacking dissidents, and on and on.

But autocrats fall. They always do, and it’s because the only thing giving them power is fear.

Powerful as fear is, eventually people will stop fearing you.

Autocrats are the antithesis of power, because they abuse it, thereby stripping themselves of the support of their own people, their own nation.

 

love of life

To look for life
is to find death.
The thirteen organs of our living
are the thirteen organs of our dying.
Why are the organs of our life
where death enters us?
Because we hold too hard to living.

So I’ve heard
if you live in the right way,
when you cross the country
you needn’t fear to meet a mad bull or tiger;
when you’re in battle
you needn’t fear the weapons.
The bull would find nowhere to jab its horns,
the tiger nowhere to stick its claws,
the sword nowhere for its point to go.
Why? Because there’s nowhere in you
for death to enter.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Last night we began the new season of Chef’s Table, which begins with the monk Jeong Kwan, which is fascinating for a lot of reasons, but especially within the context of the show. Chef’s Table is centered around the greatest chefs in the world and the story of their careers. Often these have a sort of rags to riches feel, where a young child becomes inspired by food, seeks skill in the big cities, only to discover a beauty and culinary transcendence in their native cultural cuisine, which leads to world renown.

But Jeong Kwan has no career. She has no restaurant. She’s simply a Buddhist monk at a temple in South Korea. She lives simply, cooks simply, and has simple beliefs about food and life.

It was beautiful. My favorite episode of the series, which is saying something since I really really love this show. But the pure joy you see in Jeong Kwan is impossible to ignore. Even if you weren’t having world renown chefs and critics talk about her food being on par with any world class chef on the planet, it would still be inspiring.

Something I don’t think I’ve ever talked with anyone about is that I often have the desire to become a monk. Less so these days, now that I’m married and have a different sort of life. But before I met Chelsea, I really never thought I’d get married, and there was so much of life that I found…distasteful.

The life of a monk held a certain appeal. Sometimes a very strong appeal. And, oddly, I imagined doing it in the same way Jeong Kwan did–to just disappear one day and go to a temple.

And, who knows, maybe some day I’ll come back to that, when this path I’ve taken in life winds down.

I find it a strange desire, since I’m not a Buddhist or anything even similar. As I’ve said, I’m not even a Taoist, despite these daily meditations on the Tao.

I think it’s the simplicity of that life. The beauty in simplicity. The stillness. The quietness.

It’s something I’m always trying to discover through my own art, and always failing, I fear. But I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of stillness and silence. I think because my life is so loud. Because life itself is so loud. But even my own life. Right now, I’m listening to music. I’m almost always listening to something. I spend very little of my life in silence, and I think it’s because I’m afraid of silence, as much as I desire it.

It’s a strange thing to talk about.

This poem, today, makes me think of Jeong Kwan. Especially the second stanza, because I can imagine her facing down armies or beasts and coming away unharmed, still smiling.

Her philosophy of cooking is her philosophy of life. It’s Buddhism, obviously, and there’s a certain appeal to Buddhism. It’s not for me, for a variety of reasons, but I do like it in practice, through I often find it philosophically unpleasant. Or, I should even qualify the appeal of its practice, since Buddhism is very different in different places, and it’s sometimes quite bloody and vicious.

Anyrate, Jeong Kwan talks about food and life and the body almost as if they’re one thing. And I love that. I love the transience of life that it represents. I love how life and death are wild and unknowable but never unexpected. There’s a beauty there, in not clinging to life, but in accepting it. Accepting it along with death, as natural processes, no different than farming or eating.

And ultimately, this poem is about the transience of life. How clinging to life will bring misery upon us. Rather, we should enjoy life for what it is. We should absolutely revel in the sunlight and the moonlight, sing and dance for the beauty of existence. But we should accept that we will grow old. We will die. And there’s a beauty there, in acceptance.

trust and power

The wise have no mind of their own,
finding it in the minds
of ordinary people.

They’re good to good people
and they’re good to bad people.
Power is goodness.
They trust people of good faith
and they trust people of bad faith.
Power is trust.

They mingle their life with the world,
they mix their mind up with the world.
Ordinary people look after them.
Wise souls are children.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The next to last line is usually read as saying that ordinary people watch and listen to wise people. But Lao Tzu has already told us that most of us wander on and off the Way and don’t know a sage from a sandpile. And surely the quiet Taoist is not a media pundit.

Similarly, the last line is taken to mean that the wise treat ordinary people like children. This is patronizing, and makes hash out of the first verse. I read it to mean that the truly wise are looked after (or looked upon) like children because they’re trusting, unprejudiced, and don’t hold themselves above or apart from ordinary life.

Simple, quiet, still, but always things get done. A teacher, a leader who does not act, but people follow.

Taoism is tricky, and Lao Tzu often looks at it from the outside, the way many of his contemporaries must have looked at him and his followers. And he’s okay with treating himself ridiculously, with mocking Taoist practices and ideas.

But the core that we see from Taoism is a kind of serene belief in the goodness of people. That doing things well, that being kind, that behaving in a prosocial manner will create a sort of rippling effect of change.

Be the change you wish to see in the world and all that. Taoism takes that as a truism, and then acts upon it. In this way, Taoists seem naive, utopic, idealistic: childish. But it’s in remaining open and empathetic as a child that you create a more promising world. A kinder world.

Power is goodness.

Power is trust.

These sentences and ideas are simple, but their ramifications are complex and complicated, because we’ve been trained for thousands of years that Might is Right. Taoism sees that idea as the refuge of cowards, of simpletons. And while killing those who oppose you may be effective, it will not create a more stable or comforting world. And those who must use violence to prove that they are correct will never find your subservience to be enough. It will always lead to more violence, to greater cruelty.

The difficult thing is finding a way to act against violence while refusing violence.

The Tao is that other way. And it’s why all hope is not lost.

Since Trump became president, much of the US has become a chaotic and unpleasant mindscape. But, at the same time, we’re seeing active participation in the political process on a scope not seen in decades. It is not violence that will combat totalitarianism, but organization and action.

Part of me thinks the best thing the media could do is to ignore Trump. No longer discuss his tweets and no longer bother to interview him.

With most would-be dictators, this would be a disaster. But with Trump, I think it would drive him insane until he’s begging for someone to just watch him. To just look at him, to just listen.

What I mean to say is that we are seeing the world respond to a violent ideology, and it’s through increased compassion and generosity. And that’s a beautiful thing.