There’s a panhandler on a corner in my town.
Many times I’ve driven by feeling pity for him because he was homeless, wore shabby clothes, and had few options in life. But one day when I drove by, I was coming home from a job I hated, stressed about bills and loved ones I was worried about, and the thought came to me, what a damn lucky guy.
This panhandler didn’t have the worries I had. He didn’t have a house payment, a schedule to juggle, and other people to care for. And he had a job after all — a good one, because he was sitting on the corner for only a few hours a week. At least he was getting some sun and rest. Maybe he was a liar, playing on people’s pity and his life was not as his sign suggested.
That moment was my first stumbling awareness of Tao.
The pity I’d felt had been an extension of my Self into a space it had no business being. The envy I felt on another day was equally inappropriate. I’d been judging his life by my own, making assumptions and creating a dichotomy where only plurality exists.
Judgment always depends on where you stand.
I value owning a car: how sad you waste money on taxis or time getting places when you could travel quickly in comfort. My dad, who never drove, had the opposite view: how sad you waste money and time on that machine when you could get fitter using pedal power.
Oh, I doubt I’m challenging your nimble mind with my mundane examples! You understand how pluralism works. Maybe you even know what standpoint theory is.
So how do you feel when I ask whether you:
- have gay friends?
- would use a nongendered bathroom?
- would be friends with a couple who has a nonmonogamous marriage?
Did you feel yourself tense and your mind dart for a moral line-in-the-sand?
Let’s complicate it.
- What do you think about a parent who chooses assisted suicide?
- What do you think about a neighbor who becomes a sex worker?
- What do you think about a friend who pays for an abortion?
Now we have more context to consider when judging “right” and “wrong”. But are these examples different in principle from the former examples? Are you required to be part of the choices any of these people make? Yet you may try to limit their choices directly by confronting them or indirectly by voting for laws that control them.
And still, are the values you hold even your own?
This is the point Laozi makes. The values we uphold in our moral dichotomies are not our own. They belong to our culture — cultivated by many different entities from retailers to religion. When we reinforce them through thought and action, social conventions and laws, we’ve trapped ourselves and we’ve trapped each other. We are very far from walking with Tao.
Tao isn’t found in the “superficial order imposed by positive and negative opinions, the good/bad, yes/no moralizing that denies fear and ignores mystery.” (Tao Te Ching: LeGuin).
You may know the wonderful allegory about the farmer and the horse. I think of this often, like when I drop some coins in the panhandler’s cup and wonder about whose life is “good” or when I’m attacked by people who call themselves “good” Christians.
A poor farmer’s horse ran off into the country of the barbarians. All his neighbors offered their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” After a few months the horse returned with a barbarian horse of excellent stock. All his neighbors offered their congratulations, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t a disaster?” The two horses bred, and the family became rich in fine horses. The farmer’s son spent much of his time riding them; one day he fell off and broke his hipbone. All his neighbors offered the farmer their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” Another year passed, and the barbarians invaded the frontier. All the able-bodied young men were conscripted, and nine-tenths of them died in the war. Thus good fortune can be disaster and vice versa. Who can tell how events will be transformed? (Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version Perennial Classics. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)