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Smallness

The hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low measure each other.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2 (John C.H. Wu translation)

There is nothing like a snowstorm to remind us all how small we are without causing much real damage.  Plans are canceled, families huddle, and gradually houses and roads all lose their shape under a blanket of life-giving water frozen into tiny crystals.  Life as we know it has to pause.  These brief holidays from the ordinary are something that we can measure our world by, if the stolen moment is taken well.

Consider the ongoing tragedy of Haiti and the scenes of helicopters and other heavy equipment bringing in relief supplies to a people who now stand taller than most of what they had previously built.  What will we say when it become necessary to airdrop food into Washington, which I suspect will happen sometime after the newest batch of snow?

We may not like the idea of being rendered so low, but nature can do that to us.  How the experience shapes us can tell us a lot about who any of us are as citizen philosophers or as animals built with an instinct to survive.  Our mortality is a given, yet we are predisposed to rarely consider that as a driving force in our lives.  What we can develop an opinion about, even in polite society, is how the world will definitely continue on even after we are gone for one very simple reason – we are, after all, very small compared to the wet and swirling ball that we live on.

Even this simple and obvious statement has the ability to divide us into many different camps.  It has become fashionable since the Romantic Era to think of humans as creatures that can shape their own destiny, a thinking being with tremendous power.  A more conservative view tells us that we are powerless under the gaze of God who has his own plans for us.  How we measure ourselves often divides the “industrialized world” from the have-nots who may or may not covet our possessions but only sparingly absorb our philosophies.

The debate on global warming also has a tendency to come down to whether or not people believe that we have the power to ruin our planet without intending to.  How we feel about the various forms of Popular Doom are just another division along these lines.  A rote belief in the power of “experts” can only come from a people who believe that there is only so much that they, themselves, can understand about their own world.

All of this strays very far from the original problem – how the guiding philosophy of the Western, industrialized world stresses the power of individuals.  That outlook can be sorely tested by nothing more than a solid dumping of a few feet of snow.  What should we do about it?

If you find yourself stuck today, or at any time in the Winter months ahead, I’d like you to contemplate just how you feel about what is either a forced holiday or a stolen moment in your lives.  I’d like to offer you Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching, written about 2,500 years ago in China by author(s) identified as “Lao Tzu”, the “wise elder”.  The translation is by John C.H. Wu, who stays as closely as he can to the original text.  Another variation by Stan Rosenthal is available with much more elaboration on the original poetry.  Yes, it is enigmatic, but if you want to understand how your own life is measured it takes a little bit of perspective.

When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this is in itself ugliness.
When all the world recognizes good as good, this is in itself evil.

The hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low measure each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.

Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado,
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell on it.

And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

14 thoughts on “Smallness

  1. Can’t we just leave it at “Judge not, lest ye be judged?” It seems to me that it means about the same thing.

  2. Janine: Only if you also consider the lillies. 🙂 If you want to make a case for a big dollup of Taoism making its way into the teachings of Jesus, that is a a topic I’ve deliberately stayed away from because I’m always afraid I won’t do it justice. But I did cover it in “Downriver”, if obliquely (as always).

    I have another translation of the same chapter that I can add if someone wants, this one by Ursula K. Le Guin. She worked a lot harder on making it accessible to a Western audience.

  3. e.lee:

    Yes, the Rosenthal one is particularly bad on this chapter. I like to use it just because it’s on the web (and very handy) but … this time it’s Wu for me.

    I have the Shambala edition of Le Guin’s translation right in front of me. I’ll put it here, reformatted to take up a little less space:

    Everybody on earth knowing that beauty is beautiful makes ugliness.
    Everybody knowing that goodness is good makes wickedness.

    For being and nonbeing arise together;
    hard and easy compliment each other;
    long and short shape each other;
    high and low depend on each other;
    note and voice make music together;
    before and after follow each other.

    That’s why the wise soul does without doing,
    teaches without talking.

    The things of this world exist, you can’t refuse them.

    To bear and not to own;
    to and and not lay claim;
    to do the work and let it go:
    for just letting it go is what makes it stay.

  4. I’ve always felt kind of bad about myself for having a limited grasp of esoteric notions such as these, that seem to be so profound, so deeply meaningful, and I WANT to absorb them and benefit from the wisdom to be found there–yet they tend to largely go over my head as to their true and deeper meaning. This is frustrating to me, since I consider myself an intellectual being, one capable of deep thought and appreciation of other ways of thinking.

    Actually, the Rosenthal version helped me a lot. Isn’t it funny how different we all are?

    I often feel the same way about humanity when a big snow dump occurs and life as we know it is forced to grind to a halt because of Mother Nature. It does tend to make one feel small, doesn’t it? We are at Her whim. We think we’re so big and all-powerful, and then we get snowed in and are forced to be humbled, even if only temporarily.

    I think it’s good for us.

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