“There’s nothing to fix, and everything to create.”
My own personal sage** suggested this to me today. She sounded a lot like Lao Tzu, who said:
“Do you want to improve the world?”
Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the first sentence of the Tao Te Ching’s 29th chapter gets us do-gooders jumping up and down, hands aloft, shouting “I do! I do!” In fact EVERYBODY weaned on Abraham-based religions (Judaism, Christianity, or Islam) assumes that ‘good people want to leave the world a better place than they found it.’
The Book of the Way continues, “I don’t think it can be done.”
That sounds rather defeatist. After all, in our New Age, anything’s possible! Surely we CAN fix this place up.
But Lao Tzu isn’t describing our world as permanently unsalvageable, rather he says: “The world is sacred. It can’t be improved. If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.”
Now he’s sounding hard to believe – even flippant — in a world with hunger, war, disease, environmental degradation, and intolerance/prejudice/brutality against those of non-dominant race, religion, marital status, physical or mental ability, sexual preference, political affiliation, gender, economic status, tribe, height, or shoe size.
Yet, according to the Tao Te Ching’s next sentence, everything has a place: “There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger.”
Hmmm. I remain skeptical. And only partly because I don’t like to picture Lao Tzu as Kenny Rogers in saffron robes strumming “know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em” on a celestial ukelele.
The other part is that it seems too passive — like a cop-out.
The translation brazenly concludes “The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way, and resides at the centre of the circle.”*
In trying to find this abiding — as well as some justification for WHY ON EARTH we’re apparently being counseled not to improve the world — I’ve been reading different versions of the Tao Te Ching. I’ll never know what-all I’m losing in translation, but I’m getting glimpses:
- World: literally Heaven Below. It’s also often translated as earth, but I like Heaven Here Below.
- Improve: literally a verb meaning something like “to participate in a proactively intended, effortful, work-like action.” It’s translated variously as act, make, work, improve, actively-act, or work on. I write it below as “fix” but try to insert the whole long phrase into my mind when I am reading.
- Sacred: The text literally refers to an en-spirited vessel or tool. Opinion’s divided, but apparently our world is something that performs some beneficial function (like the way a vessel holds stuff or a tool can be used to perform some certain task) when we engage with it in some certain way.
- Translators even disagree over whether a particular character means yet or and.
- Plus there’s no punctuation in the original!
I took the liberty of adding some dots and dashes to my own working hybrid of several literal translations:
It happens — this desiring to grab onto Heaven Here Below and/yet fix that same thing.
I notice it isn’t obtained yet.
Heaven Here Below — an inspirited vessel — is not able to fix either.
Those who fix are spoiling.
Those who take hold of are losing.
You see, regarding things —
Some are walking ahead and some are following.
Some are breathing to warm up and some breathing to cool down.
Some are being strong and some delicate.
Some are supporting and some destroying.
Appropriately it happens that sage people
Are apart from extremes,
Are apart from extravagance,
Are apart from excess.
Lao Tzu is not so much theorizing as providing us with pure observation: you can’t grasp onto your cake and modify it too. Apparently the world just doesn’t “work” that way because the world is spirited — infused with or made of spirit.
In physics, work is doing stuff with stuff: using force/energy to accelerate mass. Clearly you can’t work with something made of spirit (like this world). But I think maybe… maybe you can do not-work with or on it.
In physics, not-work (i.e., the opposite of work) would have to be: no force accelerating any mass. That is: Stillness.
Lao Tzu also noticed that all kinds of seemingly far-out variations of every scenario possible may seem to happen in this world, but the sane person (one of my favorite alternative translations for sage) isn’t concerned. The verb “be apart from” can also be translated as eschew, avoid, give up, or not distinguish.
It’s as if a sane person simply does not traffic in concepts of “too-much-or-too-little-ness.”
Why would we attach, identify, fuse with, worry about, or even notice non-spirited issues in an en-spirited world?
Today my sagely adviser’s words added the keystone to my understanding of this chapter. Yes, when we free up the energy, attention, and intention it takes to attempt to fix something, we gain a feeling of relief and much-needed wellness (which is so welcome). BUT: it’s what follows that’s really amazing: creativity. Generativity.
What would you create if you were not trying to fix:
- a loved one
- everyone else
- some thorny “problem”
- the world
Remember there are several meanings of “fix,” so… you’d no longer be thinking that you need to wrench on that thing PLUS you’d no longer be trying to pin it to one space, time, or standard. Maybe you’d create:
- a quilt to snuggle your loved one
- a surprise waffle supper
- a spontaneous, authentic open look of wonder and adoration
- a whiff of ease
- a song — with or without what may be considered lyrics/tune
- a new way to approach our beloved, beautiful, damaged planet
- a peaceful moment
When you live like this, some might say your actions and their fruits are improving the world. I’d say it’s more like you’re glorifying creation. It’s a place where thanks and love are indistinguishable. Praise be.
* Yes, Stephen Mitchell says “she.” The first time I read this, it stopped me in my tracks. One reason I idolize him.
**Update: C. Jane Estelle, beloved friend, therapist, and sage died unexpectedly in July 2015. I really do miss her.