Things Are Not What They Appear To Be

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care.
I alone am expressionless.
Like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need.
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about.
Like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright.
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp.
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose.
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 20, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about the need to do some Spring cleaning. There are things that we need to throw away. Things that we have substituted for simply following the great Tao. I promised, at the end of the chapter, that if we stay in the center of the circle, balance and harmony will return. Because, all around us is chaos, we need that return to balance and harmony.

Lao Tzu has spent the last few chapters talking about the turmoil in the world. Both the reasons for it, and its cure. In today’s chapter, we have what one translator of it referred to as, “one of the most pathetic expressions of human loneliness, from lack of appreciation, ever written.” Even I, have found this chapter disturbing and seemingly uncharacteristic of Lao Tzu. I have previously characterized it as Lao Tzu’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” believing he was suffering from a serious bout of depression.

It has only been after reading over and over again through the Tao Te Ching, over many months, now years, that I have come to appreciate what Lao Tzu is doing in today’s chapter. Hopefully, I can make sense of it in today’s commentary.

I think the place to begin is with this: Things are not what they appear to be.

What has always thrown me in reading this chapter is how often Lao Tzu uses the personal pronoun, I. I count a total number of twelve times that Lao Tzu uses that personal pronoun. And, seven of those times, he is saying I am alone. Yes, it does begin to sound pathetic. If we were to isolate this chapter from the rest of the Tao Te Ching, I would agree. This is a despairing man. And, I am not suggesting that the translator I mentioned earlier wasn’t trying, desperately trying, to put all of this into context with the rest of the Tao Te Ching. I just think he made the same mistake that I made to begin with. He couldn’t reconcile it; just like I couldn’t reconcile it. And that was that. But I can’t give up on this.

There are clues to Lao Tzu’s intent throughout the chapter. They are to be found in all of his comparing and contrasting himself with other people. This chapter seems to be full of all the differences between himself and others. At the very end, he even comes right out and says it, “I am different from ordinary people.” The whole chapter’s theme seems to be, at best, a celebration of difference. I have even previously entitled commentary on today’s chapter “Vive La Difference” so yes, it is there. But, hold on there. There is more here than just that.

Let’s look again at the first stanza. “Stop thinking, and end your problems….” Here Lao Tzu is talking in the second person. We have the pronoun you. What really is the difference between yes and no, between success and failure? Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid? And Lao Tzu’s “answer” to the question? “How ridiculous.”

That “How ridiculous” may be the most important thing he says. But I still want to reconcile this with the rest of the Tao Te Ching, and I have my work cut out for me. Lao Tzu has already insisted, back in chapter eight, that we need to be content to simply be ourselves, and not compare or compete with others. And that is exactly what makes this chapter seem so contrary. Because it seems, comparing and competing with others is exactly what Lao Tzu is doing. That is why I said to you, “Things are not what they appear to be.”

What has Lao Tzu been talking about the last few chapters? The turmoil of beings. Our trust issues. Forgetting about the great Tao. The need to throw away the substitutes and return to the center of the circle.

And, I began to wonder, who exactly is talking in this chapter? Is it Lao Tzu? Does he really feel all alone? And I started to understand. What Lao Tzu is describing, for us, is the way things seem to be. We have talked about this before. The Tao is the way things are. The way things seem to be is not the way things are. What Lao Tzu is doing is setting up an observer, one who sees things the way they appear to be.

To the observer, Lao Tzu appears very much alone; while other people, seem to have their act together. But remember, friends, when everyone is running toward a cliff, and you alone are going the other direction, you will be seen as the insane one.

That “running toward a cliff” is an apt metaphor for the chaos we are experiencing in our world today. The whole world is in turmoil, chaos seems in ascendancy. But, what if you took a step back? What if you remembered the great Tao? What if you returned to the center of the circle; and stayed there, no matter what every one around you was saying and doing? Would it make any difference? Maybe not to the multitudes that value what others value and avoid what others avoid. But, how ridiculous is that? To the casual observer, you are a fool, an idiot. But, you just stay right where you are, drinking from the Great Mother’s breasts. I dare you to do it.

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