Saturday, August 25, 2007

Life is fleeting---

I enjoy playing around with plants. This year a friend from work gave me some Datura seeds that have grown into some handsome plants in my patio. Yesterday I had a beautiful bloom in the morning.

But the thing about datura blooms is that they are very short-lived. So I took some pictures of them as the day progressed. They add up to being a bit of a metaphor for the transitoriness of life.

Like most people, when I was young it seemed that life could go on forever or at least for a very long time. As someone is who is now past middle-age, however, life seems to me more like a candle that is very quickly burning itself out. I suppose the reason why it seems this way is because as we grow old we gain more and more personal experience. When we compare this to today's events, the days seem relatively shorter because they become a smaller and smaller percentage of our life.

A related effect is that when I was young I was more concerned about the individual than the collective. When it seemed like I was going to live forever, my life was the most important thing. But now that I feel like a candle that merely burns for a small period of time, I more and more find myself concerned about "passing on" the flame of my life to illuminate others. (Amongst other things, that is why I bother to work on this blog.) This is a common thing in people's lives and I notice that the academic library where I work almost always has senior citizens working on historical research in order to keep the past alive for future generations.

One of the reasons why I am disengaging from politics is to find the time---while I still can---to try and share what little I have learned about Daoism with future generations. It would seem a shame to let all the endless hours of work that I have spent in study and practice fall away simply because I couldn't find the time to teach. This is especially important because Daoism is in danger of either disappearing through lack of interest or being horribly polluted by the terrible teachers that have recently appeared. I shall try if for no other reason but to honour the memory of the teachers that I have taught me.

Human effort is by its nature short-lived. Once the blossom has fallen there is nothing more that it can do. Then it is all up to future generations.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Charity and the Dao

I've gotten a couple obviously heart-felt responses to a throw-away remark I made in my last post, so I thought it would be a good idea to put some time and effort into parsing out what I really believe on the subject. So here's the result:


I have also developed a very jaundiced view of most forms of altruism---most of which strike me as being a the result of a form of blindness not terribly different from that which motivates most venal acts.


Like most peripheral comments, this one doesn't explain itself in much detail. But it is not a position that I take lightly, that I adopted willingly, nor is any sort of personal innovation to Daoism.

I have always had a very strong charitable impulse. (In fact I still do.) This has not involved simply tossing a little extra in the collection plate at church or writing a cheque when the "United Way" comes calling at work. Instead, I have literally tried to live the life suggested by the New Testament where I give to the poor a substantial part of my financial worth and personal life. Amongst other things, this has involved inviting total strangers into my home.

One formative experience involved a young woman who I met at the university campus where I was an undergraduate. She looked hungry so I bought her lunch. When we got talking, she said that she was living in a tent at a local conservation area and that she had no work. I happened to be alone in a house that I was fixing up for the summer, so I offered her room and board for the summer in exchange for help. She gladly moved in.

It was a lesson in life. She was a very good looking young woman who had worked as a stripper until (so she said) that she had witnessed a stabbing that so frightened her that she quit her job. I assumed that the summer residency would be a "leg up" so she could find a job and get a place of her own. Instead, she decided that it would be a permanent arrangement. After I pointed out to her that she needed to get a job and that I was supporting her by doing the home renovation gig plus a graveyard shift as a minimum wage janitor, she called these "chump change" jobs. In contrast, she suggested that her career path was to get pregnant and live on child support (this was how she was raised.)

When I had to kick her out of the house it was very traumatic. She got a gig stripping at a local bar. Then she did get pregnant and ended up being an absolute disaster as a parent (I met the parent of a baby-sitter who was totally freaked that the government would not remove the child from her home.) The woman went through a period of heroin abuse and ended up in a somewhat stable relationship in another town. Years later I met her at a wake where it became pretty clear to me that she hasn't changed much since I first met her.

I met another woman when I was still attempting to live a "normal" (i.e. not as a Daoist recluse) life. She had a child from another guy and she had decided to devote her life to raising this baby. The pregnancy had been the result of some sort of minimal relationship but she refused to have an abortion. At the same time, she refused to let the father even see the fruit of his loins but was bound and determined that he was going to help support her and the boy for a long time.

This woman had been trained as a legal secretary and had actually worked in the field. But after having her son, she decided that it would be wrong to not exclusively breast feed him or wean him before the age of at least two. As you might imagine, this dramatically reduced employment opportunities. As a result, she ended up having to rely upon the state for subsistence.

I also had a relationship with a woman who worked as a waitress at a local bar and owned a house. She had a degree in fine art and a teacher's certificate. But there always seemed to be a reason why working at a regular teaching job simply wasn't good enough for her. (She did do a temporary gig at a special program teaching adults, but the funding disappeared and I don't think she even tried to switch to an ordinary program.) She had come from quite a wealthy family, but for one reason or another, she didn't get along with them and had severed all ties.

After I left this woman, she developed a form of mental illness that rendered her unable to make a living anymore. But because she had never been willing to work at a job with benefits, there was no long-term disability program she could plug into. And because she had severed all ties with her family, she ended up with no safety net, formal or informal, to plug into. When she goes off her meds, she sometimes comes to my door in a very agitated and quite confused state. I used to give her money, but I found out that the welfare agency is quite concerned about her but she refuses to allow them to help her.

My heart bleeds for these people. I always has bled for them. But I came to some significant decisions as a result of my lame attempts to help them.

First of all, they are in the mess they find themselves in not because of a cruel world, but because of the values that they hold dear render them incapable of thriving in the world around us. The first woman has an inflated sense of what she is worth in the world---to the point where she will live in dire poverty before she will demean herself by working for the less than inflated salary of a stripper. The second believes that the entire world should turn on a dime for her ovaries (e.g. refusing to have an abortion, expecting the man to pay child support, the government to support her extreme views on parenthood, etc.) The last painted herself into a corner by having such an extreme vision of personal freedom that she left herself with no "safety-net" for when she got sick.

I also used to give money to beggars on the street (there are a lot in my town.) I considered it a "blessing" to have so much money that I could do this. I never asked myself whether or not these folks were "worthy" because I thought that that was between them and God, and not something for me to concern myself with. I noticed very quickly, however, that the panhandlers figured out that I was someone who always gave and sometimes would give a lot. The result was that I found myself being singled-out for attention. In fact, people started coming to my door. The last straw was when I was having a little bar-b-que and a fellow who was obviously suffering from a very bad drug problem "gate crashed" the event.

The point wasn't that I am some sort of prig who wants to keep these people "in their place", but rather that they were beginning to threaten my hold on middle-class existence. Middle-class life requires a lot of things: financial security, home ownership, a secure neighbourhood, etc. Being connected with the "under-class" threatens all of this. If your neighbourhood starts going downhill, you end up with worse and worse people moving into the homes around you. And this raises the danger of crime, lowers the equity in your house, reduces your freedom from things like loud noises late at night, increases vandalism, etc. I am not a rich man, and the only reason why I own my own home is because I have been very careful and frugal. By involving myself with the desperate class, I was threatening my position. (I noticed this because my "good" neighbours absolutely freaked when my ex with mental problems started hanging around the house---they could tell instinctively that this was a bad thing for everyone.)

A man who jumps into the water to save another has to understand that he runs the risk of being dragged down and drowned himself.

I had a lot of conversations with my last partner over these issues. She grew up in Bombay and literally swam in an ocean of beggars from an early age. Like me, she is very concerned about poverty and has spent a great deal of her life devoted to doing "good works". But she doesn't have that same sense of guilt that I feel because I am not living the life that Jesus recommends. (Which is odd because she is the Christian, not me.) Her very wise answer to me, however, was to say "Are you doing this to help these people or to make yourself feel good?"

This really got me thinking and it turned out that I was just as much a victim of my values system as the people I have mentioned above. I thought that giving is a solution, when it clearly is not. This comes about because when I see them, I see myself. But they are not me, and I am not them. Unlike the first woman, I learned early in my life that we have to eat "bitter" in our lives. If we don't do it consciously through things like working for "chump change", we will do it unconsciously through things like heroin addiction. I also believe that whether or not we believe that our present society values children as it should, we have to make compromises with economic reality. I also have decided that "no man is an island" and we need to maintain good social ties with family and institutions (like a good job) if we are going to survive the groin kicks that life inevitably throws at us.

I wish that these people in my life had learned the same lessons that I have. And I still help with folks if I think that it will genuinely be of value. But until they decide to discard the values system that is holding them down, it will simply be pouring sand down a rat hole. And my belief is that Christian charity is simply yet another one of these destructive values that I have had to discard if I am going to live a life in harmony with the Dao.

Please note. I am not making value judgements about these people. They are just like everyone else---they have good qualities and bad. Indeed, I still love some of them. But their core values have rendered them incapable of thriving in the modern world. And until they make the decision to jettison these values and adopt ones that are a better "fit", they are always going to suffer problems. Short of having the state stand at their side and force them to make better decisions; or to give them so much money that they can be totally feckless and not suffer any consequences; there is nothing society can do to protect them from their dysfunctional values system.

Lest people think that I am some sort of modern nihilist, I would point out that I have read translations of Daoist texts who attempt to make this very point. As I recall (I don't have the text at my finger tips) one story involved a Daoist who opened a box that was filled with demons that personified all the impediments to realization. The last one was a child that represented all the altruistic impulses that tie someone to the "land of dust". It was pointed out in the commentary that this is the most dangerous demon that a Daoist has to overcome.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The world will not end---

I went to a family get together last week and while there I noticed something extremely surprising. One of my nieces handed my brother-in-law a copy of the Al Gorevideo "An Inconvenient Truth". Later on, I noticed that all of my family was engaged in a variety of animated discussions about global warming and the need to make big changes in our lives. It seems that after 30 years the penny has finally dropped with my family. Moreover, if I can believe the polls, it looks like the same thing can be said about the rest of Canadian society.

Oddly enough, I didn't really know how to take this. Probably as a result, I went through a period of depression (or as the Jesuits would say "desolation".) Yesterday I finally finished the A.C. Graham translation of Liezi and it finally dawned on me that I can walk away from environmentalism with a clear conscience. This is not merely an empty realization, as I went to a meeting that night and bowed out of a commitment that I had made to take on a position of responsibility in an upcoming very important political campaign.

As a Daoist, I have always believed that it is insane to wear yourself out in the pursuit of personal gain. I have also developed a very jandiced view of most forms of altruism---most of which strike me as being a the result of a form of blindness not terribly different from that which motivates most venal acts. For example, I once took it upon myself to try and help a homeless young woman only to find out that she was the author of almost all of her own misfortunes and any help that she received from family, friends or the government only served to "enable" her self-destructive behaviour. In retrospect, I realised that my attempts to help were motivated by my own equally dumb conditioned responses. (Namely, the folly of putting yourself into another's shoes. In actual fact, most people are very different from each other and empathy is almost always delusional.)

But I have always thought that the environment is different. It strikes me that it is a crime against nature and future generations to damage the ecosystem. In retrospect, I now realize that I was also afraid that we would end up killing off the human race. A lot of people I meet in the environmental movement say that this wouldn't be such a big deal, but I have always believed that they were simply lying to themselves to appear "cool" or to simply win a debate. Perhaps this fear of human extinction was a form of displaced fear of my own mortality, but either way it was my primary motivation for the huge effort I have put into ecological politics for the last two decades.

But now I realize that the extinction of the human race is probably not a real consequence of global warming. A population crash is possible, and people are already dying from the effects of climate change. But extinction is simply not in the cards. Instead, the fight is for both the plants and animals; and the individuals who will suffer greatly from things like hotter heat waves, longer droughts, and the flooding that will happen when the polar caps melt. (Good bye Bangladesh--.)

This is sad, but it is not really all that different from other human disasters. Plagues, famines, wars, and so forth have been the lot of humanity ever since it first became civilized. (These were all grim realities when the Daoist masters Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi were writing.) I have done my bit at trying to raise people's consciousness and it is now up to them. I will now turn my back on the environmental community. My duty is done and I can now pursue my true love, which is following the Dao.