If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can’t achieve.
Trying to control the future is like trying
to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut your hand.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 74, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
As I am sitting here typing this, the calendar informs me that the most wonderful time of the year has begun. I am meaning the beginning of Autumn. Apologies to my readers down under in the Southern Hemisphere. I know Spring has sprung for you. But Fall kind of snuck up on me this year. In my part of the world, south central Missouri, and regardless of the calendar, we have been having Fall like weather for a couple weeks now. I had actually kind of forgotten that Autumn hadn’t officially arrived. And, while I call it the most wonderful time of the year, I really must admit that I enjoy all four seasons of the year, pretty equally. They all have a little something to offer. So, whatever season of the year it happens to be at the moment just happens to be my favorite.
The seasons come and the seasons go. If there is one constant we can really count on, it seems that change is it. Sometimes we really like the idea of change. And other times, we really can’t stand the thought. But change is inevitable. That is one aspect of the eternal reality. When we are wanting change, it seems slow to come. And when we don’t want things to change, it has a way of acting swiftly.
I’d like to promise those of you that are trying to hang in there until your needed change arrives, to keep hanging in there, your change is going to happen. But today’s chapter isn’t really written for those who are holding out for a change. Today’s chapter is written to those who are holding onto things that you don’t want to change. Lao Tzu is wanting us to learn to let go.
No matter how firmly we hold on, change is going to happen. And it would be best if we let go of all those things that are going to change. We need to realize this, and hold onto nothing. Funny phrase, hold onto nothing. I typed that and then I stopped and looked back at it. That isn’t what Lao Tzu said. Hold onto nothing. He said, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. That is what all these transient things are. Nothings. They come, they go. They are nothing. Let them go.
And that was just the first line of today’s verse. Lao Tzu follows it by saying the same thing, a different way. We have covered before that Lao Tzu likes to write these couplets. What are you afraid of? Most of us are afraid of dying. At least a little. Perhaps we fear it more, the closer it seems to approach. But there is something exhilarating about experiencing the fear of death. We like to watch daredevils, even if we wouldn’t be daring enough to do those death-defying stunts, ourselves. I don’t think it is death-defying stunts that Lao Tzu has in mind when he talks about the nothing you can’t achieve if you aren’t afraid of dying. What jumps out at me is there is that word “nothing” again. There is nothing you can’t achieve. If there is nothing you will try to hold on to, there is nothing you can’t achieve. Now, that is poetry. I am sure I could spend a great deal of time talking about that.
But not today. Today is fleeting. And I am going to leave it to my readers to imagine the endless possibilities.
No, I want to get back to the concern that Lao Tzu is addressing in today’s chapter. And that is our need to be in control. That is what makes us resistant to change. That is why we hold on to things that are transient. That is why we are afraid of dying. Not content with the present, which, alas, is transient, we want to try and control the future. And Lao Tzu offers a painful illustration of just what we are trying to achieve.
At least it seems like a painful illustration to me. I am not a carpenter by trade. Far from it. And I look like a fool when I try to handle a master carpenter’s tools. So, generally, I have no problem leaving it to someone who is better suited for the task. And that is exactly why Lao Tzu’s warning makes such good sense to me. Trying to control the future? That is like taking the master carpenter’s place. When you handle those tools, you are likely to cut your hand.