The way forward is a mystery. If someone pretends to know, listen for the con. They lie to themselves first, then to anyone who will listen. Their lies will tell you what you want to hear.
There was once a country which we believed, was good and kind and just. We believed it sought equality for all those who sweated and toiled for it. We believed it did not prejudge you by the darkness of your skin, the place your family came from, the person you chose to love, or your genitalia. We believed it could keep its mountains, forests, streams, and oceans wild and pure forever. We believed it could bring a comfortable life to everyone who gave their lives' work to it. We believed it could lift everyone up together. Did it change or did we change? Perhaps it was always this way. Now we can see it for what it always was. It has not died, but our belief has. Now it is clear, our country is just like any other. We are great, no longer. We should take some time to cry for our loss. Then get back to work.
In my circle of friends and relations there is a lot of anxiety, sleeplessness, and sadness about the recent national election. It all seems like a turning inward toward isolation, division and distrust. And that is exactly what it is. Politically the strategy of distrust of “others” is a strategy that will never lose its appeal, because it is baked into our subconscious. The strategy of reaching out, making connections with others and building community will never lose its appeal either, because it is baked into our subconscious as well. Some of us, as people tend more toward the former state and some of us tend more toward the latter state, but we have both inside of us.
If you’ve ever gone through a break up with a lover, or a fight with a close friend, you have experienced how closely connected are the feelings of love/connection vs distrust/resentment. Or if you’ve been in the presence of great danger, you know the feeling of relief once you feel safe again. The feelings of love/betrayal and the feelings of fear/safety these are examples of two things that are really one. Only their names differ.
It helps when we can keep sight of the greater trajectory. We sometimes fear that the politics of separation and distrust will win out over the politics of community building. Or conversely some people fear the politics of government control will win out over the politics of individual freedoms. These are all just words, which mean little coming out of our mouths. The greater trajectory remains constant. Both views will rise and fall over time, like a child on a swing. When we can see only one side of the coin it is easy to forget what is on the other side.
We certainly have good reason to fear, because these swings may destroy everything we hold dear. I think of that line from the Woody Guthrie song “Joe Hill ain’t never died”. It harkens back to a time in our country, when people sometimes died for their cause. And the cause continued on without them. I hope not, but we may see a return to those times. The success of the great community-building efforts of our country; women’s suffrage, union organizing, the civil right movement, the gay rights movement, social security, medicare, progressive taxation, we now take all these things for granted. And they may become lost to us, nothing is guaranteed.
Looking at the larger map, does nothing to change the cliff in front of us. It does nothing to change the struggles in front of us, the sorrows we might endure or the tragedies that face us, but it does remind us of the joys which are possible. And it reminds us that the way forward is a mystery, we should not assume the worst.
In my previous essay I equated the use of the words “The Way” (the “Tao” in Tao Te Ching) and “Truth”. I am a little loose in my use of words, because words are not precise and their meanings evolve. A third word that could be used in the same way as “The Way” and “Truth” is: “Nature”.
Repeating cycles, is the way of “Nature”, as well as human history. Embracing the sadness is a natural way of dealing with being inside of the loss. It is much easier to embrace loss and sadness if we can keep hold of the overall trajectory of things; that is Nature. Nature has no true winners or losers. Defeat and victory are our own mental constructs. And sharing this feeling helps us to move forward.
One example of embracing sadness and sharing is, the musical tradition of the blues. Here is a quote from Ralph Ellison:The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. This is an example of how tragedy can be used to create context in our lives instead of just a sense of defeat and resentment.
Leonard Cohen, who just died recently also inhabited that realm. Quoting from a recent Slate article:
On Old Ideas he sang about writing “a manual for living with defeat”, that being the human condition as far as he was concerned. “Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it work out,” he told journalist Mark Ellen in 2007. The role of a good song, he continued, was to share that feeling so that “we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat”. For Cohen, defeat was the truth of things; the source of all the best jokes; the reason to make art; the crack where the light gets in.Dorian Lynskey
Taking time to cry helps us move forward.
So what is the Tao connection I am trying to make? Firstly, I don’t read the Tao Te Ching as a self-help document. I think of it as being descriptive rather than prescriptive, much more like art. Offering an observation rather than offering a solution.
Our minds are trained to search for solutions. We see problems everywhere and think they must always be fixed. This is only natural, it probably comes from our basic need to survive. But it doesn’t always serve us well. And brings us much anguish, such as the anguish I’m feeling about a campaign based on racism, hatred and misogyny winning out over a campaign based on community-building.
Here are two different translations of a portion of verse #1.
The first is what I would call a descriptive translation.
Hence, normally without desire so as to observe its wonder.
Normally having desire so as to observe its boundary.
These two are the same coming out, yet differ in name.
The second is what I would call a prescriptive translation.
From Victor H. Mair:
Always be without desire in order to observe its wondrous subtleties;
Always have desire so that you may observe its manifestations.
Both of these derive from the same source; They have different names but the same designation.
In the first translation, the words seem to trip over each other in trying to describe something that we all have witnessed, but have trouble putting into words. The second translation is cogent and poetic, it seems to carry a solution for us if we follow its directive. It’s allure is deceptive though. I would say the first translation does a better job of capturing the sense of the Tao Te Ching is trying to convey. Reality is muddled and unclear when we try to view it. There exists nothing truly wrong that needs to be “fixed”. There are no clear rules to follow; but we can observe the wonder and the manifestations of the world. We can be with and without desire at the same time.
The line “Normally having desire so as to observe its boundary.” is the line which says “blues” to me. Fingering the jagged grain and being alive in one’s aching consciousness is observing the boundaries of desire. If you can’t finger the jagged grain then you can’t feel the soft tenderness either, the two are one and the same coming out. If you can’t cry it is hard to feel much joy.
We SO wish we could have one without the other. And THAT is the essence of what it means to be human.