The Difference Between If And When

The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.

If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.

When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop, you can avoid danger.

All things end in the Tao, as rivers flow into the sea.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 32, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu offers us an if and a when. I think those are two powerfully distinct words; because they offer the difference between dreams and reality. Let’s take a look at them one at a time.

The “if” comes first. This one is about hopes and dreams for a better world in which to live.

If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace, and the law would be written in their hearts.

So much is said in so few words. If they could, then look at the wonderful things that would transpire. Does it sound too good to be true? This utopian dream come true? Living in a paradise on Earth. Everyone living in peace in harmony. And the natural law written in everyone’s hearts. Who wouldn’t want to live like this?

Oh, that powerful men and women could stay centered in the Tao. Would that it were possible. But does Lao Tzu hold out much hope that powerful men and women would ever want this kind of world? Lao Tzu at the very beginning of this chapter gives us a hint at the problem for the powerful. He says the Tao can’t be perceived. It contains uncountable galaxies; yet it is smaller than an electron. Now Lao Tzu has spent a lot of time talking about this unperceivable Tao. And one thing he has talked about over and over is that the only way we can experience the Tao is from a position of humility. The powerful are far too lofty in their ivory towers to ever be able to perceive it, let alone center themselves in it.

People have spent lifetimes waiting on the powerful to do what is right. Many people keep holding out hope that the next election cycle will turn things around. If we just give the right people the power, they’ll fix things.

And oh the disappointment after each election, when the faces change but the policies remain the same. But I just know next election, things will be different….

If all we had was this if, we would probably continue our hoping and waiting and forever being disappointed. But thankfully, Lao Tzu doesn’t just offer us an if in this chapter.

He also offers us a when. I said right at the beginning that I think the difference between if and when is the same as the difference between dreams and reality. There is nothing wrong with dreaming. But there is a time for a reality check. There is a time to know the difference between if and when. And when “when” is now.

When you have names and forms, know that they are provisional. When you have institutions, know where their functions should end. Knowing when to stop, you can avoid danger.

Knowing when is of the utmost importance. The first important thing that we need to know about when is that when we have names and forms, they are only provisional. Provisional means they provide or serve only for the time being, or temporarily. Names and forms have a temporary function. But that word, temporary, is key. I fear that too long holding out for the if, we run the very real risk that we will miss the when. The temporariness of names and forms.

Now hold on just a minute, what does Lao Tzu mean by names and forms? I think he gives us a hint in his next “when” where he speaks of knowing when the functions of institutions should end. Though I have little idea what, in Lao Tzu’s day he was getting at, I think I am not too far off to conclude that names and forms like capitalism, socialism, communism, democracy, monarchy, etc., were all provisional. These served a temporary function. But we need to know when to say when. And institutions, like governments, have served particular functions; and I think they have outlived their usefulness.

No doubt some of you are squirming right now. Some of those isms are sacred to us. Perhaps we are not quite ready to give up on some of them. And are we really ready for anarchism? How will we know when “when” is now. Henry David Thoreau believed that when we were ready for it, we wouldn’t need a government any longer. And I think it is high time to be ready.

But why now? The State would have us fear the unknown. Fear chaos. I mean, who will build the roads? But let me tell you what Lao Tzu feared. Because I fear it too. We fear the danger in not knowing when. These names, forms, and institutions were only ever supposed to be temporary. Their functions were supposed to come to an end sometime. That has always been the way it would be. But if we buy into the lie that now is not the time; let us also remember that the very people that are telling us that, will always tell us that. Powerful men and women don’t want there to be an end. And they will never want there to be an end. We need to know when to say “Stop!” in order to avoid danger.

But what is the danger? I mean, can you at least tell me that? Sure. And here it is.

All things end in the Tao, as rivers flow into the sea. All things are going to come to an end. If you knew that you were running toward a dead end, wouldn’t you like signs pointing out the danger ahead? And wouldn’t you pay attention to those signs? Because that word, dead, isn’t temporary. When we know that all rivers flow into the sea; and we are just lazily going along with the flow of the current; wouldn’t we want to know where the river ends and the sea begins?

The truth is, I don’t know exactly what lies at the end of the road. But I would much rather be prepared for a dead stop, than to not see the end until I go splat. And like it or not, all these names, forms, and institutions are going to come to an end. Oh, I don’t know an exact date. I don’t know how much further down the river we can go. But we better be making plans for the inevitable. Now.

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