Living people
are soft and tender.
Corpses are hard and stiff.
The ten thousand things,
the living grass, the trees,
are soft, pliant.
Dead, they’re dry and brittle.

So hardness and stiffness
go with death;
tenderness, softness,
go with life.

And the hard sword falls,
the stiff tree’s felled.
The hard and great go under.
The soft and weak stay up.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

In an age when hardness is supposed to be the essence of strength, and even the beauty of women is reduced nearly to bone, I welcome this reminder that tanks and tombstones are not very adequate role models, and that to be alive is to be vulnerable.

Like Le Guin, I appreciate how the Tao Te Ching continually subverts the classic descriptions of strength and power. Throughout the text, Lao Tzu elevates weakness, vulnerability, softness, passivity, and peace. He denigrates aggression, violence, and any other exertions of force.

The Tao is power, but it does not force us. It does not dictate how we must behave.

It invites us to follow.


People are starving.
The rich gobble taxes,
that’s why people are starving.

People rebel.
The rich oppress them,
that’s why they rebel.

People hold life cheap.
The rich make it too costly,
that’s why people hold it cheap.

But those who don’t live for the sake of living
are worth more than the wealth-seekers.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

This poem is especially relevant this week. It’s relevant every week. Every day.

Written 2,500 years ago, and it’s such a clear denunciation of capitalism, which did not even exist in any formal way.

I don’t have much to say about it. It’s all right there, self-evident as it’s always been.

Find a new way. Reach past capitalism. Imagine a new way. A better way.

It’s small consolation to be worth more than your murderers while they’re murdering you.

the lord of slaughter

When normal, decent people don’t fear death,
how can you use death to frighten them!
Even when they have a normal fear of death,
who of us dare take and kill the one who doesn’t!
When people are normal and decent and death-fearing,
there’s always an executioner.
To take the place of the executioner
is to take the place of the great carpenter.
People who cut the great carpenter’s wood
seldom get off with their hands unhurt.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

The first four lines convey the abnormality of those who don’t have some level of fear with regard to death, and the abnormality of those who aren’t afraid to kill someone.

Most people fear death. It’s just a fact. Even though the Tao Te Ching tells us there’s nothing to fear from dying, Lao Tzu understands that that’s simply not reality for most people. And so the fear of death is woven into normal society. We’re all afraid to die, and we’re especially afraid to be killed. Even more so if the killer is the state, and I think this poem can be looked at from the perspective of a society.

What could be more abnormal than when the state kills its citizens? What kind of insane place is that to live?

The Death Penalty has been abolished in my state for over a century, but a few years ago Tim Pawlenty tried to get it reinstated.

Can you imagine the level of savagery needed to convince people who have no desire to kill their fellow citizens that they need to start killing prisoners and criminals?

But this is america, the home of barbarians and savages who cloak themselves in words like freedom and patriotism. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, though. How we’re one of the most savage countries in the world. We routinely murder our citizens right in the street. We shoot their dogs right in front of them for the crime of barking. We steal food from children and the poor and give it to the young men and women we send to die on foreign shores. We take money from teachers and hospitals and schools to make sure our police have tanks and our soldiers have weaponry so advanced no sane person would even consider fighting us.

We’re meant to be the height of civilization! The wealthiest country to ever exist! And yet we’re little better than pillagers, barbarians, pirates.

Anyway. I think of that after reading this poem because Lao Tzu is telling us that those who take on the role of executioner rarely find themselves undamaged by the job.

And we have made ourselves the executioner of democracies around the world, the executioner of our own people, the executioner of every Muslim country in the world. And now we’re setting our eyes on China.China! Who manages to look civilized compared to us. A nation that has nearly a billion people well below the poverty line. A place where dissidents are imprisoned permanently, where petty crime is punished with such severity that it’s almost better to be a real criminal than a kid caught with marijuana.

Of course, that description sounds a bit like america, too. The only difference is we have more prisoners and a billion fewer people.

We have destroyed our own nation through our savage policies. And that’s not even just talking about our policies of war and aggression. The way we allocate funds, the way we choose violence over textbooks, bombs over feeding and clothing the needy. We are a nation so riddled with the disease of violence that we can’t even consider that there may be a better way to exist. That there might be another way to behave.

The new federal budget is just an extension of rapacious capitalism that we’ve been practising for decades. People are shocked by it, and for good reason. It’s absurd.

But it’s an absurdity that we’ve been happy to go along with for decades, as long as we stated it in polite ways. And that’s what the US has learned most from totalitarian states: take away rights, choice, and care as politely as possible; make sure someone stands up and condemns it, but make sure she stands alone while 99 dudes nod or shake their head, depending on which side of the aisle they sit on. But make sure they stay sitting.

I suppose I’ve gotten sidetracked here.

The point is that choosing violence does things to you as a person, as a society. Every violent choice we make allows us to choose violence again, but this time with fewer pangs of conscience, with fewer cries of condemnation.

Even our most politicallly progressive, in america, are sill advocates of mass violence against foreign peoples. Sanders and Warren support all kinds of state violence. They just want it laid out more politely. Keith Ellison got smeared by his own party (!) because he had the audacity to say that Palestinians were also human and deserved rights.

Even the party that’s meant to stand up for a civilized way of life is full of barbarians, savages, who want nothing but war, and whatever treasures can be pillaged from the ruins.

daring to do

Brave daring leads to death.
Brave caution leads to life.
The choice can be the right one
or the wrong one.

Who will interpret
the judgment of heaven?
Even the wise soul
finds it hard.

The way of heaven
doesn’t compete
yet wins handily,
doesn’t speak
yet answers fully,
doesn’t summon
yet attracts.
It acts
perfectly easily.

The net of heaven
is vast, vast,
yet misses nothing.

–Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

This poem is mostly a reiteration of what amounts to a central thesis of the Tao Te Ching. The Tao asks us to act without acting, teach without speaking. It ties these ideas to the way of heaven, reiterating the permanence of the Tao. How it began before everything else, exists within everything else, and will last long after all else fades and dies.

The first stanza puts emphasis on our action, and it’s asking us to understand what our choices mean. Daring and caution may be correct or incorrect, depending on the context.

The second stanza reiterates the difficulty of knowing the Tao. Every moment brings a new choice. Sometimes the answer is clear, but often it’s not. The correct action in one instance may not be the correct action in another. The correct action for me may not be the correct action for you.

The Tao is fluid and flexible and everychanging. The stream of infinite flux.

It’s for us to try and do the best we can. We’ll be wrong often. We’ll fail often. But there’s value in the effort. There’s value in simply considering our choices.

Get used to contemplating what your choices mean. Because life does not always offer simple choices. The support of one idea may be correct today but incorrect or incomplete tomorrow.

I find myself often thinking about all this in terms of today, which makes sense, considering I’m alive today. But we’re seeing such fervor in opposing Trump that we’re often missing important details. We’re often ignoring context and reality, because we’re willing to believe in any awful rumor about the man.

Which is to say: many in the opposition are behaving the same way conservatives behaved when faced with an Obama or Hillary Clinton presidency. Any rumor, no matter how absurd or ridiculous, became instantly believed, spread, and consumed. Proof wasn’t needed because their disgust was already so great that there was no bottom to the evil they believed these two could commit.

What we’re seeing as a response to Trump is sometimes equivalent to journalistic fraud, and that should scare everyone.

I stand with the opposition to the president. Everything he’s done so far, and everything he seems to plan to do, is a disaster. But let’s remember that there’s a difference between propaganda and journalism, between rumor and revelation.

Remember, too, that the Democrats can bring up impeachment for at least a dozen reasons. None of them have done so. It’s unlikely that one of them will, since Nancy Pelosi also refused to bring up impeachment against George W Bush, because she said he never did anything illegal.

As if war crimes and crimes against humanity just simply don’t exist.

Remember what your Democrat senators and representatives do during this term. It may have been the correct choice for you to vote for them, but very few of them are behaving the way we hoped, which means it’s unlikely that they will be the correct choice again.

Remember, too, that there may be a time we need to work with this administration. For some, even reading me write that shows me to be some kind of Nazi sympathizer or traitor. But there may be very good reasons to work with a Trump presidency, especially if he ever follows through on a meaningful infrastructure bill.

So remember that choice is not absolute. It’s fluid and messy. Your choices today matter, and the ones you make tomorrow will matter too. Every choice you’ve made in life has mattered. So be careful with your choices. And remember that the world changes with you and without you. A choice that is correct today may not be correct in tomorrow’s context.

That’s why you need to pay attention.

the right fear

When we don’t fear what we should fear
we are in fearful danger.
We ought not to live in narrow houses,
we ought not to do stupid work.

If we don’t accept stupidity
we won’t act stupidly.
So, wise souls know but don’t show themselves,
look after but don’t prize themselves,
letting the one go, keeping the other.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

This poem is quite simple, and quite straightforward: don’t waste your time.

I’d add to that: don’t waste the time of others.

It’s fine if others believe you’re stupid or only doing stupid work. Such is the fate of a Taoist! (or anyone, really) Find what you think is important and do that. It doesn’t matter what others think.

There’s also no point in fearing so much. There are things we should fear, and I’d qualify those things as the several existential threats to our species (nuclear war, ecological disaster, mass extinctions, etc). There are, of course, more immediate dangers, depending on who you are. Disease and such things are worth being fearful of when you’re at a high risk for such things. For example, it’s become apparent to me that I will likely develop epilepsy later in life. Of course, my fear of that is tempered by the distance from it, and the fact that I can do things about it now to make sure it doesn’t hit me overly hard in the future.

But there are so many things we fear. Social media exacerbates this kind of neurotic tendency. Everything has never been more pressing of a concern! Russia’s destroying the american dream of democracy! Trump’s tax returns to be released, and they’re a doozy! Kale is bad for you! Quinoa is bad for indigenous farmers! Ice in your cup is environmental waste! Almond milk is a scam!

Then the things we should probably be more afraid of go without much comment. Like the CIA acting unilaterally with regard to drones. Our education and healthcare systems, bad as they were, are being gutted while we flail over the topic of the day.

Part of resistance is acting carefully. Acting in a way that prevents damage to us. Running after every new presidential rumor does all of us more harm than good.

Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste the time of others.

Be well.


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.

being obscure

My words are so easy to understand,
so easy to follow,

and yet nobody in the world
understands or follows them.

Words come from an ancestry,
deeds from a mastery:
when these are unknown, so am I.

In my obscurity
is my value.
That’s why the wise
wear their jade under common clothes.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

What’s hidden shines bright. This poem calls back to previous ones. Previous images. Even to the very first poem in the text.

There’s power in what’s hidden. In what’s dim. In what’s modest. In what’s relaxed and moderate.

The Tao is a deep pool, and sometimes the answers are where the sunlight no longer reaches.

Sometimes the brightest jewels are hidden under the coarsest garments.

We use metaphors to get at the unexplainable, but we act to demonstrate the Tao.

using mystery

The expert in warfare says:
Rather than dare make the attack
I’d take the attack;
rather than dare advance an inch
I’d retreat a foot.

It’s called marching without marching,
rolling up your sleeves without flexing your muscles,
being armed without weapons,
giving the attacker no opponent.
Nothing’s worse than attacking what yields.
To attack what yields is to throw away the prize.

So, when matched armies meet,
the one who comes to grief
is the true victor.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

A piece of sound tactical advice (practiced by the martial arts, such as Akido, and yb underground resistance and guerilla forces), which leads to profound moral warning. The prize thrown away by the aggressor is cmopassion. The yielder, the griever, the mourner, keeps that prize. The game is loser take all.

Be like water.

When someone throws a punch at you, it’s better to retreat then lean into it.

This is also why it’s never worth your time to debate with Nazis or white supremacists. All they want to do is inflict violence upon you. It’s not a different point of view: it’s a call to violence, to genocide. What they want is to tear you down, and so the best thing to do is to ignore them utterly.

Which is different from retreat. But if you don’t even bother engaging with white supremacists, their power remains in a niche community. The more we engage with white supremacists on the national stage, the more it legitimizes them as an ideological point of view.

They’re not. They’re an embodiment of violence waiting to be unleashed.

It used to be pretty uncivilized to be racist in public, but now it’s become somewhat normalized, and it becomes normalized because we allow these people to debate on the national stage. By even including these kinds of calls to violence in a debate elevates them to the same level as ideology.

Because a debate implies that these are two things that might be true and/or useful. When you try to debate the untolerably cruel, you’re telling your audience that this is a point of view, and it’s one worth engaging with.

White supremacy is not a worldview. It is a call to violence.

heaven’s lead

The best captain doesn’t rush in front.
The fiercest fighter doesn’t bluster.
The big winner isn’t competing.
The best boss takes a low footing.
This is the power of noncompetition
This is the right use of ability.
To follow heaven’s lead
has always been the best way.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

We have nothing to prove to one another. There’s nothing worth bragging about, and so there’s nothing worth losing. When we are confident in our abilities or even just trusting of our abilities, there’s nothing to lose because you know what you have and what you gained.

It’s those who most need competition that you should be cautious around.

This reminds me of all the many literary competitions that exist. Assuming such a thing even made sense in a practical or ideological way, it would still be a silly thing to bother with.

Art is not a competition. Life is not a competition.

I’ve participated in several literary competitions in the past and I’ve never won, and while it bothered me at the time, it doesn’t now, and hasn’t for a long time. There are countless reasons why I didn’t win those competitions, but the simplest explanation is that I didn’t write work worth praising.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever been involved in the arts. It’s interesting to me how far I’ve come in just the last year. While I have a bunch of novels I wrote in the past couple years, I very much doubt I’ll ever publish any of them, since what I’m writing now is just so much better than what I was writing two years ago, five years ago.

I gave up on literary competitions for a lot of reasons, though none of them were the belief that my work was unworthy. I’ve always liked what I write! But it just became a silly thing to do. Even setting aside my ideological and moral issues with literary competitions, there really is no reason to pin works against one another.

Art has value, even when most people don’t like it. Even when no people like it.

Self expression is valuable in and of itself, and so there’s no reason to even compare it to another work to try to determine which is better.

Art is made to provoke thought or emotion.

If you’re doing that, you’re succeeding, in a general sense.

The same can be said of just about everything. It makes sense to compete in sports, but does it matter if you win or lose?

I don’t think so.

Humility is strength, because it comes from an understanding of who and what you are. The humble are less easily shaken than the vain or the gloryseekers.

So just love what you do, and keep doing what you do.

We don’t need an audience or attendants or awards. We just need to be.

three treasures

Everybody says my was is great
but improbable.

All greatness
is improbable.
What’s probable
is tedious and petty.

I have three treasures.
I keep and treasure them.

The first, mercy,
the second, moderation,
the third, modesty.
If you’re merciful you can be brave,
if you’re moderate you can be generous,
and if you don’t presume to lead
you can lead the high and mighty.

But to be brave without compassion,
or generous without self-restraint,
or to take the lead,
is fatal.

Compassion wins the battle
and holds the fort;
it is the bulwark set
around those heaven helps.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The first two verses of this chapter are a joy to me.

The three final verses are closely connected in thought to the next two chapters, which may be read as a single meditation on mercy, moderation, and modesty, on the use of strength, on victory and defeat.

Lao Tzu does this often in the Tao Te Ching, as we’ve already seen. Sequences of poems come as almost a single thought, and then the text wanders on to new topics, new ideas, or reiterates previous ideas in new ways.

The first two stanzas are Lao Tzu dealing with his own critics. With his own optimism and childlike hopefulness.

Because these are two things intrinsic to the Tao Te Ching. Optimism and hope, even when it seems like naivety.

What’s a life worth without hope?

I’m certainly not an optimist, but I try to remain hopeful, difficult as it is. I think hope is important. In creating a new future, we must first imagine one that’s better than today. This is why we need artists and holy fools. You can’t imagine a better tomorrow without hope, without a certain fiendish level of optimism.

We are victims of history and we must carry history with us, but history is also a burden that keeps us from rising out of our present day calamities.

So try to be hopeful today.

Think about mercy, compassion, and moderation.

The sun is shining, though it’s cold. And I think that’s as good a metaphor for those first two stanzas as I’m likely to get.