Current Affairs in the Tao

By CRAIG CAREY

The Tao teaches that in order to understand the world, we must first understand ourselves. I admit this interpretation of the Tao is more a bastardization than anything else. Still, the point is there: we cannot act on the world in a meaningful way without first being content within ourselves. 

From chapter 67, as translated by Stephen Mitchell: “I have just three things to teach: / simplicity, patience, compassion. / … Simple in actions and in thoughts / … Patient with both friends and enemies / … Compassionate toward yourself.” Compassion for ourselves: what a radical idea. To be content with the world, we should feel compassion within? Amazing. Simple. Ah, simple, it circles back and becomes clear.

Illustration by Annabel Driussi

The Tao teaches humility as a source of power, power as an unattainable and truly undesirable goal, desire and a root of evil, evil as able to be overcome by humility. From chapter 53: “When rich speculators prosper / while farmers lose their land; / when government officials spend money / on weapons instead of cures; / when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible / while the poor have nowhere to turn — / all this is robbery and chaos. / It is not keeping with the Tao.” Do I even need to point out the relevance? Yet I can see folks reading that and getting angry — angry with the administration, with conservatives, with politics, etc. — but that also is not “keeping with the Tao.” To keep with the Tao, we must accept the way things are, yet work to change them through change in ourselves.

The greatest leaders lead by example. We find it easier to follow someone with whom we identify, who seems confident without arrogance, comfortable with themselves. So why should we, the not-yet-leaders of this country, be any different as the governed? Should we not also seek that balance before we take office? From chapter 66: “If you want to govern the people, / you must place yourself below them. / If you want to lead the people, / you must learn how to follow them.”

There is no easier way to change minds than to embody the Tao, no easier way to change minds than a willingness to accept those we disagree with by first accepting ourselves. To change a country, we must first change ourselves, free ourselves from anger and humble ourselves in the face of those with whom we disagree. Only when we come to the table content with ourselves can we have a discussion on the state of affairs. This is true for both sides.

I see the counterargument here: “But if we come to the table content with ourselves, and they come to the table full of anger and power and yelling, won’t we just get trampled and not accomplish anything?” In response, I turn to chapter 69: “When two great forces oppose each other, / the victory will go / to the one that knows how to yield.” This is not me advocating concession. On the contrary, this is me saying that if a side enters negotiations content and humbling themselves in the face of anger, hatred, etc. who will come out looking like the better side? Who will come out looking more in control, of both themselves and the other?

We cannot expect to change the course of this country in one sitting. We can however change this country through radical alterations in how we treat others. Respect everyone the way we should respect ourselves. We can learn much about the state of this country through the ancient teachings of Lao-tzu and the Tao Te Ching. 

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