You Should Never Say Should

Words are our way of trying to capture reality. It can’t be done, but we try anyway and we forget it can’t be done.

All under heaven realizing beauty as beauty, wickedness already.
All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already.


Considering this, the wise person manages without doing anything,
Carries out the indescribable teaching.


皆知善之为善, 斯不善已。




From Chapter 2 , Word for Word Translation by Carl Abbot

When trying to express wordless truth by using words, the words come out sounding like an impossible puzzle. The word “should” is our all-purpose prescription word. The Tao Te Ching often sounds like it is giving advice about the correct way to approach life. Such as the above sentence. Shouldn’t we aspire to be the “wise person” who manages without doing anything? What if one were to rewrite the above chapter as this: “Identifying beauty creates ugliness, identifying goodness creates evil, considering this, one should manage their lives without doing anything.” The very statement contradicts itself, because it attempts to set up a “correct” way to be and that “correct” way to be is a kind of “goodness”.

Or how about this version of the same lines.

“Beauty and ugliness showed themselves together”

“Goodness was lost, when it was thought of”

“The wise person lived without trying”

“Teaching by living”

Most, or all of the Tao Te Ching is really just different ways of saying the first verse over again from a different perspective. The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way”. But then, this is true of all stories, aren’t all stories really just the same story over and over again? The question for us is; which is the version that speaks to us. Because we have so many different life experiences and so many different backgrounds, one version will not do.

The statement; “You should never say should” I think stands as a pretty good summary of what the Tao Te Ching is all about. The statement contradicts itself by promoting the wisdom of not promoting. Such a statement points out the inherent paradox of  all effort. It also threatens us with one of the greatest fears of humankind; the fear of relativism. Like an arrow pointing towards a target. The word “should”, always points toward “good”. So without “should” we begin to doubt “good”. Without “good” what meaning can any of our lives have?

We want clarity, we want certainty,  so we create our own. I think there are probably many besides myself, who think that this fear  of relativism and this need for certainty, arises out of our self-conscious detachment from the world around us. We refer to “nature” as something outside ourselves. We see nature as something which flows past us as we stand back and look on, half in fear and half in awe. Is it this disconnect that brings so much psychic trauma to humankind? I think it does and I think it is a wound that we are forever trying to heal with our remedies of thoughts and words.

It is easy for our minds to get trapped inside of words. It is easy to forget that words are merely devices we use to share thoughts between us. And the thoughts themselves are ever-changing flashes. The thoughts can not contain “the Truth”. “The Truth” will take care of itself, no matter the words we use to attempt to paint a picture of it. You can try contemplating a phrase such as; “Know that you know nothing”, it may bring some calm and some space from the swirl of everyday events. I know it does for me. However, we shouldn’t (that word again) mistake this for “enlightenment” or “reality”, “the Truth” doesn’t need a fire-tender, it can take care of itself.

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