Life is big, my stomach is not

Maintaining direction is tough, especially the more time I spend on social media or the web generally.

I’ve always had a strong inner direction, personal interests that aren’t much changed (even if judged) by others, but as I get older, the world is actually getting bigger. That means I see more and know more, and in experiencing that I also see less and know less. It’s the paradox at the heart of Daoism, at the heart of life. As I say often, Life is Big.

So I wonder.

maslows-hierarchy-of-needsWhat matters? Do those things that drove me when I was younger still drive me? Should they? The answers aren’t the interesting thing. It’s the questions that are always most interesting.

What excites me is finding better questions. This is my litmus test for maturity, for growth, for human life. Strangely, as most people get older, they seem to seek and hold onto answers, however silly, rather than seeking new, better, or refining questions. I have family and friends who take great comfort in their vision of immortal parents who provide answers that let them rest easy. They have stopped, just stopped. But that isn’t life, after all — to stop, to rest, to be at peace. That is the opposite of life, isn’t it?

So I wonder.

Is comfort the goal? Has it ever been important to me? Should it be? Still, I know and seek the comfort of a full belly. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m quite fortunate. Or perhaps I’m quite unfortunate. Once life’s immediate needs are satisfied, what’s left but the things not of the moment…not my belly, which can be satisfied but my mind, which cannot.


My 15-year-old knows everything

This week has been filled with conversations with my oldest child. The conversations are about his future, as well as opinions on everything I have to say about life.

In other words, my 15-year-old knows everything.

As I listened to him telling me I was wrong to think this or label that, I held myself back from arguing. I had my say and let him have his say. At the risk of sounding condescending, I realize I have 4 decades more of life experience than he does. And while his perspective is and will be different, experience in itself changes us all in similar ways.

I’m not sure there is any benefit to a young person having the perspective that I have. I can’t imagine the difficulty a young person would have striking out into the world with the circumspection, compromise, and humility that my 53 years of life have given me. Building a life, relationships, education, and career are helped with the belief that the world is black & white, that people and events follow principles one can know, that maintaining one’s principles through hardship is a virtue, and that an ultimate meaning exists and will make itself obvious at some point in the future.

So, young people, don’t sweat it now. Stay busy connecting, gathering, and building as you create your life.

It was a similar situation with my girlfriend, who was 25 years younger than me. After three years together, we broke up this winter. It was a wonderful relationship in many ways, even when we disagreed. We often talked about life in general ways. She had different priorities, and I had twice the life experience as she, so there was quite a bit of disconnect. Still, I wasn’t there to change her, to convince her of anything. I just wanted to share my thoughts, but she wanted a right and wrong. I was sharing ideas about which we were both “right” from our own perspectives, while she felt one of us had to be wrong and argued as such.

In time, she will likely see the other side of the dichotomies she now ardently enforces through her language and choice. In time, she may come to believe, like me, that the differences are less about right/wrong than about both/neither and not really oppositions at all. And much of what we discussed was context-dependent, something you can truly understand only when you see yourself change. But gaining that perspective at her age rather than at my age, as a product of debate rather than from living, is not helpful. The perspective she has now is how she navigates her twenties. She needs to live her twenties without a 53-year-old perspective getting in the way.

I was thinking about this because I ran across a few writings by Daoists that mention age as an aspect of Daoist belief.

One mentioned that children should not be raised Daoist by their parents, because they should make their own choice when they are mature. The other mentioned that Daoism is a way of living that appeals more to those over, say, 50 years old. I’m sorry to say I don’t have the links. I try to keep track of such things so those reading here can read further elsewhere, but I’ve processed quite a lot this week.

The ultimate pursuit of the Dao is about cultivating oneself — self-transformation. Noncoercive action (wuwei), unprincipled knowing (wuzhi), and objectless desire (wuyu) allow the process of living to unfold spontaneously on its own terms. This is a place age brings us to as we begin to lose our social and economic powers in the world. But it’s also a way of living that many of us embrace because we come to realize that we never really had control, despite what youth had us believing.

As a young person, I knew if I could clearly label the world, make “good” choices, and maintain my principles through hardship, I would be successful.

I smile — affectionately — at my 20-year-old self.

We create the path as we walk it

Running into Daoist elitists is always a bit surreal. But I feel in good company. Zhuangzi was suspicious of “sages,” too.

I’m reading a book about the globalization of Daoism and trying not to be disheartened by the bickering. Political battles are not of interest to me. But I am enjoying the authors’ analysis contrasting East and West:

American spiritual seekers can be said to begin their quest and practice within a framework of “ontological individualism,” in which spirituality consists in discovering, nurturing, and expressing one’s own “deep self”; Daoist cultivation, on the other hand, is based on a process of “cosmological attunement” in which spirituality consists in the harmonization of the dynamic structure and forces of the body/mind with the corresponding dynamic structure and forces of society and of the cosmos. (Palmer, David A.; Siegler, Elijah. Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.)

Certainly, the culture that evolved Daoism matters. Certainly, cultural appropriation is an act we can examine in the same way we examine privilege: it’s not something we can avoid doing (or having), but recognizing our standpoint gives greater context and respect for others.

But that’s not really my interest today. I’m mulling over “identity.”

A fixed identity (West) vs a process of aligning identity (East) is very meaningful to me. As one who has lived as, and loved others, living in the margins of society, I’ve witnessed the fierce struggle for rights and protections, a struggle that requires of the socially nonconforming to state and defend a permanent and one-dimensional identity:  “I was born gay…I didn’t CHOOSE it…” or “I AM trans…I ALWAYS have been this gender inside…”

The cultural shift that brought equal marriage to the US was won with the idea that sexual attraction is not a choice. This was the mantra of the movement for over three decades. Now, the young people coming out as transgender are being forced to use the same argument. I say “forced” because why should it matter whether they “can’t help it” or they “choose to”?

But it does matter to many people. If a gay man marries a woman, he was never really gay but only confused. If a trans youth detransitions or desists years later, they were never really trans but a victim of social contagion or seeking attention. To be authentic, those expressing their trans experience are expected to tell stories of gender confusion that start before speech, show a consistent nonconforming gender expression throughout childhood, and use keywords like “disgust” for their current bodies.

As my trans son expresses his identity, I won’t demand that he “has always” or “will always.” Maybe one day he will stop being a man, or maybe he will always be a man. It doesn’t matter. It’s his story. Identity is a process. Aligning our personal stories with our intimate sense of spirit is an ever-changing experience.

We create the path as we walk it.