the sick mind

To know without knowing is best.
Not knowing without knowing it is sick.

To be sick of sickness
is the only cure.

The wise aren’t sick.
They’re sick of sickness,
so they’re well.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

What you know without knowing you know it is the right kind of knowledge. Any other kind (conviction, theory, dogmatic belief, opinion) isn’t the right kind, and if you don’t know that, you’ll lose the Way. This chapter is an example of exactly what Lao Tzu was talking about in the last one–obscure clarity, well-concealed jade.

This is something I often think about, and it’s led me to always have a somewhat conflicted relationship with philosophy. I think I’ve discussed this sometime during these reflections, but I’ll say it again.

So much of philosophy is used to justify the terrible things we do. We give reasons for why we enslaved or continue to enslave, justifications for why war is necessary and even good and proper. So many words are spent to convince ourselves that our worst attributes and inclinations are the only way to do things.

Plato’s Republic, for example, is a handbook on how to create a fascist state, but we read it as a great treatise on governance and philosophy.

So I’m always coming back to these simple thoughts. Like how we know it’s wrong to hurt others, physically or emotionally, because it feels terrible to do that. It obviously feels terrible when it’s done to you, but even behaving this way gives us a visceral, negative reaction.

Even when I yell at my cat, I feel bad about it. I feel that I’m doing damage. That my impatience is on reason to lash out. It disgusts me, my own anger.

My anger is no justification to assault another creature. My impatience is not an excuse for my behavior.

There are so many things we know simply from experiencing life. We know what action is pro-social and anti-social. It’s simple, because we have a biological response to either one. When someone smiles, it makes us smile. When someone laughs, it makes us laugh. When someone attacks another person, we’re repulsed, angered. We become almost physically ill at seeing another person endure pain.

Think of any movie that shows acts of torture.

It’s pretty terrible, even just to view its re-enactment.

And yet we get lost in words, in theories, in philosophizing, in justifying.

We know what is pro-social and anti-social, and that’s really the only justification necessary.

It’s better to see people fed than to see them starve. It’s better to know that all people have access to medical assistance than to know that they may suffer because of its absence. It’s better to welcome a stranger than it is to shout at them, to send them away in fear.

These are things we know without teaching. Things we know from just being.

This is simple stuff. It’s barely even worth saying it, and yet it must be said, because there’s so much noise in our lives. So many voices shouting that we must fight and hurt.

Be better. It’s simple.

Be kind.