Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead they are brittle and dry.
Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 76, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
The question I pose to you with today’s chapter is, “Are we the living, or are we the dead?”
I don’t suppose there is anything more extreme than life and death. And Lao Tzu likes picturing extremes to get his point across. Whether he is talking about newborn babies or dead men; plant sprouts or dead trees.
Newborn babies and plant sprouts represent life, and all the potential of the Universe. Lao Tzu wants us to embrace that. To be full of life, full of potential. Ever able to adapt to our changing environment. Because, change is inevitable.
The stiff and inflexible can’t adapt to change. Time takes its toll. Change happens whether we can adapt or not. And if we can’t adapt, we die.
We have to be soft and yielding. We have to be willing to go with the flow. To adapt to our inevitably changing circumstances. Only this furthers our growth and perpetuates the force of life within us.
But, of course, Lao Tzu isn’t just intending this to refer to our physical lives. The physical imagery is merely metaphorical. This is something to apply to ourselves as individuals, to our families, to our communities, to whole countries. Enterprises or ideologies – all must be willing to be humble, to learn from others, to adapt to change.
Look around you and you will see plenty of examples of the hard, stiff, and inflexible. Now, note their end. It will be swift.
But as for the soft, the supple, the yielding – they go on and on.