Act without doing; work without effort.
Think of the small as large and the few as many.
Confront the difficult while it is still easy.
Accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.
The Master never reaches for the great;
thus, she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus, problems are no problem for her.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 63, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I could write every day about the political philosophy of Lao Tzu. And, Lao Tzu certainly gives me plenty of opportunities to do just that; as I go through the Tao Te Ching, one chapter at a time each day. Writing on those chapters is easy for me to do. It isn’t anything that hasn’t been core principles in my thinking for as long as I have been thinking politically. But I have come to enjoy chapters like this one today, which are much more radical for me. They are the ones that got me to challenge core beliefs about the way things are. They are the ones that introduced me to the notion that things aren’t what they appear to be. That there is an eternal reality that I wasn’t even aware of, but was there, present, whether I was aware of it, or not.
I was raised in the protestant work ethic, that idolized work. Making it, almost an end in itself. It has only been in the last two or three years, that I began to see that work was not an end, but a means to an end. Then, I started questioning whether the means was really helping me to get to the end, or whether it was more of a hindrance to achieving the end. That caused me to rethink how I perceived the purpose of work.
I needed chapters like today’s where Lao Tzu is talking about effortless action. Today’s chapter isn’t the first time he has talked about this. It is a core tenet of philosophical Taoism. But, it was the one thing that I found most difficult for me to grasp. I said it was only in the last two or three years, but this has been going on a lot longer than that. My whole life I have been questioning accepted norms; but then, pressed by the needs of my present circumstances, I put serious questioning on the back burner.
I know when my father was nearing the end of his life, back in the last six months of 2002, I was being forced to look for answers. Here was my father, my hero, reduced to almost helplessness. And he told me on more than one occasion that his own life had been a failure. I tried to soothe him by telling him that he had managed to put his children through college. We were all doing well. He was nearly out of debt. There was a lot of reason to say that he had succeeded in life. But he knew better. He understood then, at the end of his life, what I needed to understand at a much younger age. There are things that are so much more important. Something that he had always put off to the future, that he had toiled away at for all of his life, and never got to enjoy.
And he died, and I was left with no immediate answers. I was freshly divorced. Raising two children all by myself. Working 50-60 hours a week, and trying to homeschool my children, too. Yes, those questions had to wait. I would put them off and put them off, until my children were both grown. Even then, it took life throwing me a curve, when I was swinging at a fast ball, for me to finally find my whole world shaken to the point that I could no longer put off considering those questions again.
That was when I encountered Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. And that, my friends, has made all the difference. I loved Lao Tzu’s obvious libertarianism. I ate that up. That was easy. He was just saying what I already believed. But I spent a great deal of time trying to understand wu-wei, the practice of effortless action. It wasn’t easy. It was so very different from the glorification of work with which I had been raised. But my own father’s doubts at the end of his life, nagged at me. I reasoned that if Lao Tzu was right about libertarianism, certainly he could be right about this. So, I kept at it.
And that is how I got to where I am today.
All my adult life I had been reaching for the great. And I never achieved greatness. When I ran into difficulty, it only made all my work that much more difficult. But that was my lot; or, so I thought. I spent a great deal of my life clinging to whatever comfort I had; and, cursing the darkness, when problems arose; that I felt I had no way of working through. Though work through them I must; my children were depending on me, after all. Does life really have to be a drudgery? Is that what life is all about? Is this life really worth living?
It did finally “click” with me. Oh, I can’t tell you the exact day and hour that it did. Aren’t those moments supposed to be able to be well documented? Well, mine wasn’t. I don’t even think it was a direct result of this particular chapter in the Tao Te Ching. I don’t think it was anything that I learned at all. I think it had a whole lot to do with a whole lot of unlearning that I was doing. Every day another little something was dropped, until I arrived at non-action. Wu-wei.
Now, I can act without doing. Now, I can work without effort. I think of the small as large and the few as many. This is important guys. We get overwhelmed by the great task. Lao Tzu is wanting to spare us from that. Confronting the difficult while it is still easy, became easy. It didn’t used to be. I started accomplishing great tasks by a series of small acts.
Okay, that last paragraph was all just repeating Lao Tzu verbatim. How do I flesh this out for you? I left behind the daily grind of participating in the labor force. Now, I work for myself. I do what I love to do, and I only do what I love to do. The work that I do gives me pleasure, where before it was drudgery. I tutor children, small children. Most of you that have been following me for very long, know that already, because I talk about it from time to time.
Tutoring takes up about 16 hours out of every week. The rest of my time is spent in leisure. Leisure was always a luxury that I could ill afford. That is that protestant work ethic talking. But my Dad never had time for leisure; and, I wasn’t going to wait to the end of my life to discover that I had wasted mine, too. My leisure is spent outside whenever I can. I love to watch my garden grow. Or, just sitting outside in the sunshine, smoking my pipe, and watching the turmoil of beings. When I am inside, I am on the internet. Or, reading. Or, spending time with friends. Or, whatever I want. Because now, I have the time to do it all. And that makes living an art.
No, I don’t have a whole lot of money. And I probably never will. But, voluntary poverty isn’t all that bad; when you quit trying to cling to your own comfort. I make enough to keep a roof over my head, plenty of good food to eat. And enough to spend on, well, me. I am not making anyone else wealthy. But, I do think I am offering a much needed service to the parents that entrust me with their children. And, I don’t take any handouts from the State. So, I think I am a net positive for the world in which I live. And, those pesky problems? Well, they are no longer a problem.