staying put

Rule a big country
the way you cook a small fish.

If you keep control by following the Way,
troubled spirits won’t act up.
They won’t lose their immaterial strength,
but they won’t harm people with it,
nor will wise souls come to harm.
And so, neither harming the other,
these powers will come together in unity.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

Thomas Jefferson would have liked the first stanza.

“Troubled spirits” are kwei, ghosts, not bad in themselves but dangerous if they possess you. Waley reads the second stanza as a warning to believers in Realpolitik: a ruler “possesses” by power harms both the people and his own soul. Taking it as counsel to the individual, it might mean that wise souls neither indulge nor repress the troubled spirits that may haunt them; rather, they let those spiritual energies be part of the power they find along the way.

I like that reading of the poem. It strikes me as feeling true, or at least consistent with much of the Tao Te Ching.

I really love the first stanza. I find it both funny and charming. The simplicity of it is kind of absurd but also feels right. A small fish is a delicate thing and needs to be cooked carefully, almost tenderly.

Lao Tzu connects the exertion of force, or violence, to spiritual problems. While I tend to shy away from such comparisons, since I don’t find them especially useful, there’s no denying that the choice to exert force over another does something to the way you see the world. When you begin to see violence as a means to an end, you begin to refuse a very human part of yourself.

It makes sense for a spiritualist to connect this kind of troubling behavior to spirits, but I think saying that possession is responsible is a bit silly, or at least a bit too convenient.

We choose and we act. Our actions and choices have consequences, even if the only immediate consequence is that we’re more likely to choose that choice again. To make that action again. And if that action is violent or anti-social, we begin to walk a path where such actions are easier and more readily made by us.

That’s not the path we want to walk along.

So think about choices today. How simple choices can decide much more than we might expect, since a choice is the first step down a path. No matter which path it is, every choice we make along that path either strengthens our resolve to follow or turn away from that path.

When you choose to be kind, to be charitable, you are making a prosocial choice. Kindness and charity will become habitual the more you make that choice.

When you choose violence, in all its varying manifestations, you are choosing something antisocial, and begin to walk a path that makes violence more common and easier in your life.

So be kind. Do one nice thing today, even if it’s just smiling at someone or buying a stranger a cup of coffee. Listen more than you speak today. Learn instead of attempting to teach.