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.


Lakes and rivers are lords of the hundred valleys.
Why? Because they’ll go lower.
So they’re the lords of the hundred valleys.

Just so, a wise soul,
wanting to be above other people,
talks to them from below
and to guide them
follows them.

And so the wise soul
predominates without dominating,
and leads without misleading.
And people don’t get tired
of enjoying and praising
one who, not competing,
has in all the world
no competitor.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Taoism is about the dirt and the sand and the earth. It’s not a mode of thinking that brings you to the clouds and above, to the moon and stars. Lao Tzu wants you down in the dirt, getting your hands dirty. It’s the kind of teaching where a farmer or a fisher may be a better teacher than a scholar at the university.

In a lot of ways, it almost makes sense for Lao Tzu to disparage the scholars and intellectuals of his time. To him, true wisdom doesn’t come from books and scholarship. It comes from simplicity. From living and breathing in the world. From being a part of nature and understanding your insignificance in the face of so much beauty.

The Tao is not found in books. It’s not found in schools.

It’s found in the simple beauty of planting a seed. In listening to the river run.

And so a leader, or a wise soul, is one who can show you the world with new eyes and ears.