telling it true

True words aren’t charming,
charming words aren’t true.
Good people aren’t contentious,
contentious people aren’t good.
People who know aren’t learned,
learned people don’t know.

Wise souls don’t hoard;
the more they do for others the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.
The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without outdoing
is the Way of the wise.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

In this final poem, Lao Tzu drums out several of the paradoxes and central ideas that make up the Way. To give is to gain. To learn is not to know. Being truthful and good may not make you friends or give you the kind of power generally thought of as power.

The Way is simplicity. It’s flexible.

The Way is smiling and laughing.

The Way is feeding ducks at a pond.

The Way is buying groceries for the guy who forgot his wallet at home.

The Way is walking through a city or field or forest or park.

The Way is many things and yet hard to state.

But at its core, it’s asking us to be kind and gentle and thoughtful.

That’s pretty much it.

Kindness can change the world. Every act of kindness you do will ripple into the acts of others. Kindness will swell, very gradually, and that rippling can become a wave and that wave can sweep over a city, over a state, over a country. But only if we don’t seek such power. Only if we simply act and follow the Way.

It’s a beautiful thought, and it may be a true one. But it’s a lot to ask of people, for some reason.

Being kind is a radical act. Promoting peace is a radical idea in this country that loves war so much. But it’s only through these radical acts that the nation will change.

So resist. Be gentle, be peaceful, be kind. It’s the most meaningful act of resistance we have available.


Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.

The next little country might be so close
the people could hear cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

Waley says this endearing and enduring vision “can be understood in the past, present, or future tense, as the reader desires.” This is always true of the vision of the golden age, the humane society.

Christian or Cartesian dualism, the division of spirit or mind from the material body and world, existed long before Christianity or Descartes and was never limited to Western thought (though it is the “craziness” or “sickness” that many people under Western domination see in Western civilization). Lao Tzu thinks the materialistic dualist, who tries to ignore the body and live in the head, and the religious dualist, who despises the body and lives for a reward in heaven, are both dangerous and in danger. So, enjoy your life, he says; live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of heaven.

Is this a utopia?

It’s hard to say, and it’s hard to say if Lao Tzu is even meaning for it to be.

I’d say he’s not, at least in any practical sense.

Mostly, it’s the idea of a place where people are content to live. They’re not chasing after the unknown or even the known. They’re living life, and that’s enough.

It’s been a trend for a long, long time. The idea that there’s something more for us out there. That life is meant to mean something. That the farther we go, the more humane we become.

I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t even know if it’s useful to think of it as sort of true.

I’ve traveled a fair amount. More than most people, I’d say. So it’s difficult for me to seriously say that it hasn’t influenced the way I experience and view the world, but I’m also not convinced that doing those things was necessary to my vision of the world. Or, to put it another way: I may have come to who I am through a different route.

Of course, such thoughts aren’t especially useful to think about, since hypotheticals about who I might be had I had a different life are, you know, boring and tedious and intellectually unsatisfying.

I think what Lao Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching, in general, are saying throughout the text is that you must come to learn who you are. You must find yourself within yourself. Travel and education may bring you more easily to the surface, but it’s not the only path, and it may not even be useful for most people.

Be like water.

Know yourself, and then no matter how far you go or what you learn, you will be content. You will be able to fit into any mold, adapt to any circumstance, and yet you will remain yourself.

Imagine a society so self-possessed that life is just contentment.

I don’t know if it’s a utopia, but it’s certainly a pretty idea.

In a time of so much self-reflection and intellectual insulation, I think this is especially important. To understand who you are you need to find some kind of quiet. A place to meditate and reflect.

The issue we have, I think, is that our self-reflection happens publicly. We post our self-reflections on the internet. Even this, one could say, is an example. I’m simply writing private thoughts down, but then I’m posting them where anyone with internet access can stumble upon them.

Is it really self-reflection when it’s projected through the internet?

Can we ever know ourselves when we’re so wrapped up in the lives of others?

That’s not to say we should imitate Descartes. I think his version of self-reflection as road to self-discovery is pretty stupid. Because it begins with the idea that humans are, at some point, entirely alone.

This is too easy to reject because it’s never true.

And the Tao is never about self-isolation. Almost every poem is balanced by a regard for the greater world. Questions for state, for power, for peace. Taoism is about engaging with the world while being yourself. By following the Tao, we discover ourselves, and in discovering ourselves, we demonstrate the Tao for others.

Bring the Tao to the world, but do it in your every word, your every action.

That’s resistance.

That’s Taoism.

Be like water.

keeping the contract

After a great enmity is settled
some enmity always remains.
How to make peace?
Wise souls keep their part of the contract
and don’t make demands on others.
People whose power is real fulfil their obligations;
people whose power is hollow insist on their claims.

The Way of heaven plays no favorites.
It stays with the good.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The chapter is equally relevant to private relationships and to political treaties. Its realistic morality is based on a mystical perception of the fullness of the Way.

Make peace.

Be kind.

That’s really what it amounts to.

Don’t take advantage of others.

Don’t exert force upon others.

Be kind.

Find peace.

Be gentle.

Be like water, friend.


Nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak, as water;
nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Soft overcomes hard,
weak overcomes strong.
Everybody knows it,
nobody uses the knowledge.

So the wise say:
By bearing common defilements
you become a sacrificer at the altar of earth;
by bearing common evils
you become a lord of the world.

Right words sound wrong.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Be like water.

This is sort of the central metaphor of the Tao Te Ching. Be fluid, flexible. Flow around impediments; don’t try to push through them. Fill up the containers of your life. Be patient, gentle, and persist. Any impediment will erode before you. No power can overcome you, as you shift and flow to fill up whatever container you’re given.

Any harsh words or cruel acts can be overcome. Be like water, friend. Water shifts and flows, expands and contracts, but remains water. No one can take away who and what you are.

Be like water and persist in gentleness. No one can withstand you.

Like I said yesterday, Lao Tzu is subverting the traditional metaphors for power. The mountain is strong and rigid. Water is weak and pliant. And yet it’s water that will define the shape of the mountain, that will cut valleys through the rocks and stone.

What’s rigid breaks.

It’s like flint. Flint is incredibly strong. It’s so strong, in fact, that it’s brittle. Which means that if you hit flint in just the right way, it chips and crumbles to nothing.

Then you compare that to water. No matter what you throw at water, no matter how you rage at it and feel it give against your hands and feet, the water just flows back and fills the space you left.

You cannot beat water.

But you can destroy stone.

Be like water.

the bow

The way of heaven
is like a bow bent to shoot:
its top end brought down,
its lower end raised up.
It brings the high down,
lifts the low,
takes from those who have,
gives to those who have not.

Such is the Way of heaven,
taking from people who have,
giving to people who have not.
Not so the human way:
it takes from those who have not
to fill up those who have.
Who has enough to fill up everybody?
Only those who have the Way.

So the wise
do without claiming,
achieve without asserting,
wishing not to show their worth.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

How is it that a poem 25 centuries old remains radical? How is it that none of this has ever been implemented?

Is it truly the human way to steal from the poor to line your own home with treasures?

How is it still a radical idea that we should care for the poor? That we should help those who can’t help themselves?

Why is it so painful for us to give up some of our wealth, some of our comfort, so that others can survive? So that others can live humanely?

I wish I had answers. In the US, it’s staggering how much support there is for capitalism, even during and after watching capitalism crush the world economy. We imprisoned none of the people responsible, but plenty of those who were taken advantage of.

It’s a sickness.

The Way may not be the only way, for many have preached about helping the poor and needy, but the Way offers a new perspective to look at this problem that seems to be unsolvable.

That unsolvable problem is this: How do we instil enough empathy in people to make them actively care for those who suffer?


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.