On beginning

Perfect mastery works like water:
A boon to every living creature,
In adverse relation never;
At home where most can not abide,
Closest to the Way it lies.
For position, favor lower ground;
For thought, profundity;
For engaging, gentility;
For speaking, credibility;
For ruling, authority;
For service, capability;
For action, suitability.
Avoiding confrontation
Eliminates accusation.
There is no other way.

Laozi, 8 (Trans. Moss Roberts)

There have to be those to whom this comes naturally, but not to me. Too often I confuse perfect mastery with fighting. I’m not sure at what point this became true. I trust my memory for factual accuracy no more than Didion does in On Keeping a Notebook, but I have a vague sense that it was not this way until some time in college. At the very least that serves as a convenient marker for this narrative. Prior to that my memories are of a kind of general naivety and passivity: I took people at their word, had an optimism that was easily surprised and disappointed when it came against harder, more complex realities, and was always bewildered and hurt by those who attributed to me bad motives. While (for the most part) I’ve let go of the first two, the last remains. I wonder to what degree this drives my almost compulsive need to fight, but when I sense someone isn’t giving me the benefit of the doubt, or worse, assuming malicious intent, I summon every rhetorical demon to my defense. And thus I turn the last three lines of this stanza on their head.

I keep waiting for life to be better, as if the universe will, at some point, harmonize my situation with my desire. It is at this point that a kind of stoicism becomes attractive, but I’ve never been able to fully commit myself to it. I admire those who are able to accept things just as they are, but they seem too transcendent to relate to. Or perhaps they are just too—cold, too without passion. I understand that nature doesn’t fight, it simply is. But isn’t humanity the exception? Even animals will defend themselves against an enemy, or at the very least run from one. Yet we have to navigate not only immediate, physical pain, but the contrast between our ideals and reality. It’s not simply a matter of accepting life as it is, but of reconciling our dreams with it. Does that mean letting them go? And if so, do we also give up a vital part of what it means to be alive? There has to be a sense in which to be alive is precisely to fight, to resist, to enforce our will upon our surroundings. Even to accept things is a kind of exercise of power. We choose what to confront and what to let pass. I’d like to think Daoism is more capable of this distinction than stoicism is, but that could simply be wishful thinking on my part (or more likely, a poor understanding of both). I’d like to imagine water itself can fight, can resist, can be absolutely destructive when necessary, when forced to come against something that resists its flow. Or perhaps not—perhaps the reason it’s a central metaphor in Daoism is precisely because it is able to adapt, to change course, to seek its level in any situation.

Perhaps part of my problem is the metaphor of fighting: one must win, the other lose. There are opposing wills, and one must submit. But what if it’s not that simple? I remember sharing a story with a friend about my parents. My mother wanted to put up new wallpaper in the kitchen (this was back in the 80’s, right as wallpaper was about to become passé). They had agreed on the basic pattern, but my mother wanted a runner across the top that featured a repeating pattern of hens (or chickens? I have no idea, but that’s what my dad called them). I watched as he stayed up late into the night finishing the project, ocassionally helping him to smooth out bubbles. When the chickens were up he looked despondent. They were hideous. He lit a cigarette and stared at his work for a few minutes, then got up to tug gently at the corner of the runner. To his surprise it easily peeled off, and I could see his excitement at the realization that it could be undone. Though they had fought about it earlier (she wanted them, he objected), when she came down and saw a) that he had put them up, b) that he was depressed at how they looked and c) that they came off easily, she reflected for a minute and said they didn’t have to stay. He was ecstatic, and down the chickens came. While I saw this as a rare example of my parents taking each other’s needs into account, my friend’s reaction was simple: my father won. I could not have been more dumbfounded by her perspective, as it seemed to be a kind of reductionsim, not taking into account their relationship, personalities, struggles. I remember feeling frustrated by her worldview, but how is mine significantly different? For all intents and purposes I battle my way through it in the same way.

What if I let the metaphor of fighting go? Or at least learned to distinguish between fights that are legitimate and those that are unnecessary? Perhaps a basic distinction would be between times I feel that I need to defend myself versus others. My guess is that the former is almost never justified, and yet I’m so easily riled by it. What would it look like (nods to Randall) to take that instinct to fight and turn it toward what the German philosophers called Bildung? What if, instead of worrying about how the world seems stacked against me (and let’s be honest, by my own decisions), I focused on what I could do to make myself better? I certainly have more than enough material to keep me busy for a lifetime.

And so we come to beginnings. I have this long list of things I want to do once life affords it. And, not surprisingly, it never comes to pass. It’s time to stop waiting and just begin. Reading and writing is near the top of that list. As with all things, I have these elaborate plans for what needs to happen first—the books I have to read, the mind maps and outlines to draft, the research to do—before I can post.


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