Monday, May 31, 2010

Dealing With Ruffians

A few nights ago I was walking home from work and I noticed a young man across the street leading a dog down the side walk. He was obviously very drunk and was yelling out the lyrics to some stupid pop song. He decided to come over to my side of the street and started walking a little in front of me. (I could smell the alcohol from several paces.) He started yelling/singing again and then decided to address me by calling me "homey" (whatever the Hell that means.) I made some sort of non-committal response that seemed to not be good enough, so I just tuned him out like I do every other drunk I meet.

At one point he stopped and let me pass him, then he started walking behind me. (This is not a position I like to be in with someone like this.) I tried to distance him with a fast step, but he kept up. He also started yelling at me and saying that I was "anti-social". At this point I was watching my shadow like a hawk so he couldn't sneak up on me. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have been too terribly concerned, but he had a dog with him. This meant that if he attacked me I would not have to just fight him, but the dog also. This dramatically changed the dynamics of the situation.

Luckily, before things got too out of hand I made it to a little strip mall where a lot of people were outside a bar smoking. When I walked into view all eyes turned on this little freak and I knew that I was safe from an attack. He went into a corner store and I continued on home.

I did a lot of thinking about this over the last few days and even considered purchasing some sort of weapon to defend myself. In Canada, your options are few. Guns are out of the question. Mace is supposed to be illegal, but you can buy bear spray in an outdoors store. I looked into it, but it didn't look like it would work in the situations I sometimes find myself in walking home at night from work. It would also be hard to explain to a policeman. I also looked into a spring baton of the sort the police carry. It too is illegal in Canada. A cane would be ideal, but I'm still young enough that there really isn't any need and it would look odd too.

Eventually, I found something called a kubotan that is legal to carry. At work, I found a pocket flashlight in our toolroom that is a very good approximation that I can keep in a pocket of my work trousers where it is very easy to access and is convenient to carry. I think my decades of taijiquan will allow me to use the thing with some dexterity if need be. My plan is to carry this thing on me every night.

Some readers might find this thought process and final decision an odd thing for a religious person to follow. I would suggest, though, that it is quite logical.

Religious like me are marginal people who live in the edges of society. Many hermits, monks and nuns live in the wilderness where land is cheap, distractions few, and the police a long way away. Urban hermits and religious communities on the other hand, tend to live in rough neighbourhoods and often deal with "unsavoury" characters. Part of this comes from not devoting your life to career and making money, which means that many religious simply cannot afford to live in the "nice" (and safe) part of town and avoid unsavoury characters. It can involve making a commitment to work with the poor and disenfranchised. As a result of these choices, religious people often have to make some sort of compromise when it comes to personal safety.

There are several ways in which religious people can deal with this problem. Probably the most important is by embracing poverty. If you own nothing worth stealing, then people will not bother you. Unfortunately, this will not work if people are so desperately poor that even minimal possessions are worth stealing. I once met a Buddhist monk who told me about being on a pilgrimage in India where he was set upon by bandits. He was travelling by foot, which meant he didn't have the safety afforded by riding in a bus or train. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and his begging bowl, but that didn't save him. The thieves stole his saffron robe and his sandals---which left him nothing but his underwear. At that point they proceeded to beat the crap out of him. (Being a good Buddhist, he dealt with the ordeal by reciting his order's version of a Metta teaching.)

Nor will it work if people have spread crazy rumours about you. A community of Buddhist Monks in Arizona found this out after local youths got it into their heads that they were funding their temple by smuggling heroin into the country, that they had a safe full of money and a solid gold Buddha statue. (They were slaughtered.) It also doesn't help if you offend powerful people in the process of trying to help the poor, like these Jesuits.

In my case, because I live in a rich society and have made a commitment to be an example to others that you can live in harmony with nature without being materially deprived, and, because I am specifically not part of a greater religious community, I have to have an income and savings. This means that the vow of poverty cannot be a line of defence. Moreover, it would not have helped with this drunken fool any more than it did for those Theravada monks in Arizona or the martyred Jesuits I linked to above. And because I live as a hermit and have to work for a living, I cannot even use special religious clothing as a way of defending myself, either. (I doubt if anyone in my town would even know what a Daoist robe is anyway.)

What this leaves me is another strategy that has been developed by religious people to survive at the margins of society: the martial arts. It doesn't really come out much in kung fu movies, but I suspect the real reason why Shaolin and Wu-Dang (I tried to come up with a link for Wu-Dang Shan, but all the links I could find were so "Disneyfied" that they made me gag) kungfu came about is simply so monks and nuns---as hermits, in abbeys or as cloud-walkers---could defend themselves from ruffians.

This doesn't mean that every person who came out of a temple was some sort of superman (or woman), but it did mean that a lot of folks did have some sort of training. And training makes a huge difference when you are in a fight with someone who has never had any at all (which includes a lot of ruffians.) Moreover, it doesn't matter if most religious never really got any training. If you never knew whether or not that monk or nun you attack might be someone who can kick your ass in a fight, you might give all the ones you meet a wide birth. Why bother running the risk when you know that none of them is going to have a lot of money anyway?

Anyway, that's the calculation that I follow. I work nights because this allows me to have the sort of "slacker" job that means I can follow my religious vocation. I also walk because of my vow to never own an automobile. If the walk gets too dangerous, maybe I'll go back to riding a bicycle or start carrying a cane.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Eleven

Problems With Honour:

In much the same way that people have learned to question the faith that motivated past generations, so they now question traditional definitions of “honour”. To understand why this concept has declined as a human motivating force, I think that it is important to understand exactly what role that it played in society. I believe that if we do so, we can see the decline of “honour” as being a somewhat natural result of changes in the way that people relate to each other.

While, as I suggested earlier, the concept of “honour” has always played a role in developing the group cohesion necessary for the creation of an effective military force, I would suggest that we need to understand that the primary locus of “honour” is the individual officer or man, not the collective being of the “regiment”. If the overwhelming majority of men in a regiment feel that their personal honour is dependent on their being brave, the incidental result is group cohesion and because of this we talk of the “honour of the regiment”. But the fact is that only individual people can respond to this emotional complex. The collective is just an intellectual abstraction. And that individual concern about one's “honour” is the result of specific social and economic imperatives. Once these ceased to be of importance to most people, the concept itself began to decline. I would suggest that one can see this point if one looks at the history of dueling in Western society.

Dueling grows out aristocratic societies where power is directly associated with ones military prowess.

Ancient Vikings, for example, settled various legal disputes through a practice known as “Holmgang” which was a form of ritualized combat. The idea was that a man could challenge any other man to combat over disputed money, land, a woman, or a simple insult. If the person challenged refused to fight, then he would be declared “nioingr” and he would then be considered an “outlaw” and in some jurisdictions have all his land and money confiscated. If, on the other hand, the insulted of the parties is killed in the duel, a modest payment (one half of the normal fine for simple manslaughter) would have to be paid to the family of the dead. If the insulter died, that was considered his own fault and no penalty was levied.

The important thing to understand about individual combat like the “holmgang” is that one's “name” or “honour” was seen as being directly tied to one's ability and willingness to fight to defend it. This was implied in the ritual that one went through to become a medieval knight. Nowadays people believe that all that was involved was kneeling before a king and being tapped on the shoulder with a sword. But in the beginning the feudal overlord actually slapped or punched the knight in the face. The idea was that this was the last insult that the man would be able to accept without having to fight for his honour. And, as we see in the “holmgang”, “honour” was not just some sort of emotion felt by a person---it had legal, social and financial importance. Refuse to defend your honour when called to holmgang and you risk being declared an outlaw (that is, no longer being defended by rule of law which meant than anyone could rob or kill you with impunity) and having all your property seized. The ultimate idea is that any sort of priviledge that one enjoys in a feudal society rests upon your ability to fight. Whether it is your land, your wife or your title, if you are too weak to defend it by sword, you did not deserve to possess it.

Social customs like dueling and the holmgang come about as a way of introducing fairness into an inherently unfair situation. That is because the combat involved at least has rules that attempt to “level” the playing field. Without the rules of the holmgang, for example, the Viking Chief with the largest group of retainers would simply send his men out to steal whatever he wanted. At least with the holmgang a poor yet strong warrior had the chance of fighting a duel with the mightiest chief and winning. And the threat of being challenged to holmgang no doubt served as a check on the arrogance and abuse of power by the powerful.

In the same way, in societies with extremely weak and corrupt legal systems; where police simply did not exist; and where communications were so primitive that one could escape justice simply by riding a horse for a day or two into another jurisdiction---people were pretty much “on their own” when it came to defending themselves. Even in the 18th century, if you did not stand up to bullies by yourself, they could and would rob you of everything you owned. That is why gentlemen were expected to know how to fight with a sword and gun. And the rules of the duel were similarly codified in order to “level the field”. That is why, for example, the person who was challenged was allowed to choose the weapons (so an expert with one weapon couldn't challenge people to a type of fight where they didn't have a chance.) The institution of dueling was a logical social response to the intractible problem that the strong tend to prey upon the weak.

People forget how very common dueling used to be right on up until the early 19th century. While statistics on the subject would probably be impossible to find, one indication of how common it once was is to consider the number of famous individuals who had fought duels at one time or another in their lives. Four British Prime ministers who ruled between 1780 and 1829 fought duels (William Petty, Pitt the Younger, George Canning and the Duke of Wellington---although only Pitt and Wellington fought while actually holding the office of PM.) In 1777 one of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Button Gwinnette, died as a result of being wounded in a duel. In 1804 the then sitting Vice-President of the USA, Aaron Burr, shot and killed a previous Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton in a duel. One could go on and list dozens more very important people from various walks of life. Below the very wealthy and famous, there existed the ordinary gentry, who also seem to have been involved in dueling to a significant degree, if one can believe the literature of the 18th and 19th century. Amongst the common people, although there is less evidence, I suspect that it was also common for people settle slights to their “honour” by violence. One piece of evidence for this comes from our language. If you have ever wondered what the term “at loggerheads” means when two people are arguing, it refers to a sort of low-class duel between two non-gentlemen fight using a tool that consists of a iron bar with a heavy weight on one end (i.e. a “loggerhead”.)

Laws had existed for hundreds of years to discourage dueling but they had been routinely ignored by all and sundry because the institution served a useful purpose by protecting the weak from bullies. People who fought duels took pains to ensure that there were no witnesses and that fights took place in areas of disputed jurisdiction. But even if a case came to trial and enough evidence existed, judges and juries still refused to convict. But as societies have become wealthier and more complex, governments eventually created modern police forces and court systems that have made dueling no longer a necessary defence for the weak. It became possible for middle-class individuals to hire lawyers to fight their duels before a judge using arcane arguments instead of having to meet with pistols at dawn. When this new way of doing things became part of everyday life, popular opinion turned away from dueling. It no longer served a useful public function and instead just became ridiculous. At that point anti-dueling laws began to have teeth because judges and juries started to convict. Eventually the practice died out.

As society changed, however, the concept of “honour” continued to exist although it ceased to serve its original purpose. The necessity of protecting a person's legal and financial standing in the community by force had disappeared. But the secondary purpose, that of encouraging group solidarity during time of war, still existed. Without the objective necessity of having to defend one's self in a lawless world full of bullies, “honour” increasingly became something that the government wished to inculcate in the young instead of an essential survival skill. As a result, it became something that was taught at school and imposed by social sanction. Children were forced to memorize stirring poems of heroic sacrifice. There were encouraged to read “ripping yarns” about soldiers and explorers. And if as young men they refused to respond when their country called, there would be young women to hand out white feathers to any young men who were not in a uniform. In effect, “honour” had become a tool used by nation states to mobilize its citizenry for total war.

The First World War brought this entire edifice crashing down because it sent thousands of the Western World's “best and brightest” to a very nasty doom for what turned out to be a very dubious cause. The revulsion many of these men felt for the way that they had been “played” is expressed by some of the so-called “war poets”. These were highly-educated young members of the British elite who found themselves suffering and dying as junior officers on the Western front. Take a look at the last stanza of Wilfred Owen's poem about a gas casualty, “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

This decline hasn't been complete or uniform. Just as there is still a percentage of the population that still believes in the “Olde Tyme Religion”, there is still a fraction of the public that can believes in the jingoistic glories of military service. But that percentage has declined dramatically in most nations. This decline has been masked to a certain extent for two reasons. First of all, for many people the iconic image of war is World War II. And that conflict was quite exceptional because it could easily be seen as an absolutely necessary war. This meant that a lot of people who were very jaded could still be convinced to put on uniforms and fight to stop the institutional racist insanity of the Axis powers. Similar support for the cold war existed in the beginning (for somewhat similar reasons, given the brutality of Communism) but began to wither away when the moral ambiguity of proxy wars in places like Vietnam became obvious. “Luckily” for the military, by that time the increased mechanisation of warfare meant that there was no longer the need to mobilize huge conscript armies. A small volunteer force of highly-trained “professionals” is all that is needed today. This means that there are still generally enough people around who believe “Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori” to fill the recruitment quotas.

But just as in the case of religious faith, those individuals who are most engaged in environmental issues consist of that fraction of the population that is most likely to cast a jaundiced eye upon any appeal for honourable sacrifice. You cannot appeal to people to “do without” or make exceptional effort in order to help the nation or future generations get through our current environmental crisis if the entire coin of honourable sacrifice has been totally debased in their eyes. Once people have been badly swindled they find it very hard to believe even the most honest of appeals. Again, just as with religious faith, we are back into the Yeats territory of “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Celibate Floats Uneasily on the Sea of Sex

I was walking on a bright sunny May morning today and was struck by how essential sex is to the natural world. I think that a cotton-wood tree was in the neighbourhood, because I could see the white fluff that they use to disperse their seeds all over a part of my walk. There were also flowers all over the place---yellow dandelions, mauve lilac, white lilies-of-the-valley, blue ground ivy and periwinkles, etc. There were also butterflies zipping all over the place---mostly feeding on the dandelions. Birds were singing loudly too.

Of course people walk by this all the time, but I was thinking that from the point of view of evolutionary biology this was literally a massive "light show" of sexual selection in action. The flowers were competing with scent and colour display to attract pollinators. The Butterflies were not only polinating the plants they were feeding on, but the bright colours of their wings were similarly advertising their interest in being polinated themselves. (Butterflies are, when you get down to it, not much more than flying flowers themselves.) And the birds singing were mostly males who are loudly proclaiming their territorial control over prime nesting areas so females may be attracted to nest and reproduce.

Of course, it isn't just animals that get into all of this. Humans do too.

I noticed the "bikers" roaring by on their large, noisy motorcycles. Ultimately, most of their macho posturing boils down to an attempt to attract a certain type of female. As such, there isn't much difference between the loud roars of the Harleys and the rutting calls of a bull moose. Similarly, I passed a young girl who was obviously a bit chilled in her t-shirt, sandals and short cut-offs. But her attempt to show as much skin as possible without breaking the law is also a mechanism aimed at attracting the most "dominant" or "domestic" male possible (depending on the reproductive strategy her DNA had programmed her for), who would hopefully impregnate her, help her buy a house and raise children.

People are hard-wired to be consumed by this stuff. I know that I have spent years and years totally crazy with sexual desire. It is only through a combination of hard, hard discipline, and luck (seemingly bad at the time, perhaps good in the long run) that I have managed to arrive at my current age (51) without having reproduced. I say "luck" because I know that if I had had children I would have had just about everything I currently value taken away from me. I would never have been allowed the time to read, think, practice neidan, write, etc. Instead, I would have had all of my energy sucked into obeying the demands of wife and children.

Even though I have gotten to my present age and have worked hard at telling myself that it would be a disaster to give into the demands of my DNA to reproduce, I still fall prey to the same old delusions once in a while. For example, the other day I met one of the exceedingly small number of single, attractive women I know. I thought to myself, maybe I could ask her out on a date---. But once I got talking to her I quickly remembered why she is still single (whenever she talks, her voice is one long scream informing anyone who listens how damaged she was by her crazy childhood.) I walked away from this brief, but nutty encounter with this woman wondering at the strength of that old DNA voice in my ear that kept me from just walking on by. After all, in a more disinterested mood I could have easily predicted every different element of this interaction.

I've been single most of my life, but I have been involved with women at times. The last relationship lasted almost ten years and only ended a couple years back. One of the more annoying things that my ex once said to me was that "spiritual people", like priests (and I know that she was also referring to me) are like "children" in that in some ways that they are silly and immature. Since she really believed this, I never tried to argue with her about it---I know that there was nothing I could have said to change her mind.

I think that what she was saying in her condescending and inarticulate statement was that she and I live in totally different worlds. For her, having children is absolutely everything in the universe. Since I, and all other spiritual people, are interested in other things that the desire of our DNA to replicate, this means that I have never "grown up" in the sense of entering puberty. This ultimately drove us apart. She moved out of town to be near her daughter and grandchildren. And I am still in my hermitage, trying to push down the feelings of sexual frustration and loneliness that my genetic heritage have programmed into me. We each followed the ultimate value of our lives.

Of course this situation may seem odd to someone with a naive understanding of Daoism. After all, how can it possible be "going with the flow" or "being like water" to live a celibate life when literally every cell in my body wants me to get some woman pregnant? This is where the "Dao of Pooh" stuff falls apart. The fact is that there are practical elements to spiritual practice, and unless a person is so wealthy that they can afford to hire someone to raise the children, do all the housework, and live a life of leisure, it is impossible to find the time to do kungfu while being married or even involved with another person. There is a trade off, of course, and some benefits come from celibacy. But it is a battle none the less.

Having said all of that. Lots and lots of people have no option with regard to sex. There are profoundly ugly people who never have a hope of having a sexual relationship. There are disabled people in the same boat. There are people who are so poor or oppressed that it is not an option either. Every element of sexual frustration also exists with them. Moreover, as for having children, hordes of people who are having children really shouldn't anyway because of the grotesque over population of the earth. So it ultimately is an indulgence to complain about any situation a spiritual person finds themself in.

But that doesn't stop the DNA screaming in my ears----.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Ten

Problems With Faith:

One of the more popular definitions of “faith” comes from George Seaton who said “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to”. Of course, the point of disagreement over the ages has tended to be what particular things a person should faithfully believing in. From time to time the details have changed. But if you ask most people the response would suggest some sort of literal belief in God or Gods and some promise of life after death. This is the “consolation of religion” that lightens the burdens of life. Even religions that in essence do not offer these specific consolations have eventually ended-up expressing them in their more popular varients. This is why the Buddhism and Daoism of ordinary people (whose core texts do not really support the concepts of life after death or divine beings), have a rich cosmology complete with Heaven, Hell; and, Saints and Gods who offer divine intervention in exchange for prayer. Many people who believe that they will end up in heaven, or at least be reincarnated, are more sanguine about either their own or their loved one's death, and all the other travails of existence.

There are people who still literally believe this sort of thing, but since the Enlightenment the spread of rationalism and science has managed to dramatically reduce their numbers. This decline has taken two forms. First of all, the number of people who make any pretence of there being a life after death or any supernatural beings who directly intervene in public affairs has declined dramatically----especially amongst our educated classes. And amongst those who still espouse some sort of support for these beliefs, many have progressively pared-away the practical elements of them to the point where it is very hard to understand exactly what they might be.

Some people might naively believe that this sort of faith hasn't really declined because they fear the power that fundamentalists believers exert in various societies---especially the USA and Islamic nations. That influence, however, comes more from the intensity of the beliefs that these people hold, not their numbers. That is to say, it only takes a very few people to make a terrorist attack. Even the influence of fundamentalists in democratic states like the USA and Isreal are dramatically magnified by the moribund state of both democracies. If voter turnout increases in America---as during the election when Barak Obama was elected president---their influence declines dramatically. Similarly if the Isreali electoral system was reformed in order to remove the power of the fringe religious parties, then the influence of fundamentalist Judaism would decline with it. The point that cannot be denied, however, is that these fundamentalists are motivated in ways that go beyond those of secular people, which is exactly the power of “faith” that I am suggesting is missing from the rest of society.

The key point to understand about fundamentalism is that in a sense this “ism” is really a “wasm”. That is to say that fundamentalism can only rise up as a distinct and identifiable movement if there is a dominant alternative worldview for it to rebel against. This particular point of view only arose as a specific social movement because people who think this way feel marginalized by the rest of society. In contrast, the faith that the adherents of this worldview hearken back to from ancient times was not one particular viewpoint that someone chose and reinforced by attending a specific type of church or mosque. It was the air almost everyone breathed from cradle to grave. Indeed, contrary to the quote from George Seaton, the real faith of the past, the one that sustained most people was not in conflict with common sense, it was so pervasive that it was common sense itself. Looked at from this point of view, the rise of militant fundamentalism is not an indication of the strength of this worldview but rather evidence of its weakness. And if one really looks into the history of fundamentalism, she will see that the term itself was coined by a group of late 19th Century evangelical Christians who were explicitly reacting to modernist tendencies in well-established mainstream American Protestant denominations. As the same modernist revolution has spread around the world and undermined the old order in other places, so too has reaction against it.

The decline of this olde-tyme faith does leave us with the question of why it withered away only to be kept alive by a rump of “die harders”?

As I see it, “Faith” has suffered for two reasons that while closely allied are best kept separated.

First of all, science has managed to dramatically change the world we inhabit in that there is less and less of it that is “a mystery”. Our ancestors didn't know what the planets, stars and the sun were. They didn't know why the tides come and go, they didn't know why we have summer and winters, they didn't know why children look like their parents, or why the sky is blue. In fact, they knew precious little about just about everything. If you are in the habit of not knowing much of anything at all, then it is a lot easier to accept that there is a hidden world behind it and a lot more mysterious stuff in that too. We inhabit a much different universe than that. Not only do we know a great many things about the world around us, we have gotten into the habit of thinking of mysteries as something that we just haven't figured out yet and which will probably be “more of the same”. Since the religious faith simply doesn't “mesh” with this new “common sense”, it just seems silly to more and more people.

Even worse, at the same time religious faith became harder and harder to accept because it clashed with our scientific worldview; it also began to clash with our politics. Church institutions are often very hierarchical and unresponsive to the wishes of parishioners. But beyond the sheer “bloody-mindedness” of ancient bureaucracies and archaic leadership structures, there are deeper problems. The very idea that ancient, obscure, often badly-translated texts can answer all the questions of the modern era is something that simply jars against the sensibilities of a body politic that believes that society can and should change; and that our sense of “right and wrong” can change as people learn more about themselves. An issue even more at odds with modern sensibilities is the notion of deities altogether. People have given up on believing that we need to have a king on Earth; why would they accept that we still need one in heaven? Again, the key point isn't whether or not people believe in the existence of God, but rather that the whole thing seems rather silly to modern sensibilities. And once a religion appears ridiculous, it is totally moribund.

I believe that there really is no honest answer to the questions modernity has posed to naive religious faith. It may have offered consolation to our ancestors, but it cannot be accepted now except at the price of walling our minds off from everything the Enlightenment has brought us. And at the end of that road lies not paradise but rather people flying airplanes into buildings. Moreover, it is specifically those people who are most aware of modern scientific discoveries and engaged with civil society who understand the problems we face and therefore suffer the most from environmental despair that are least able to accept the olde tyme faith. The poet W. B. Yeats sums up the situation nicely in the lines “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Dao of Fear and Anxiety

I cannot think of where to find the citation, but I remember coming across a scholarly essay where the author made the point that there is a significant element of fear in some of the key texts of Daoism. Primarily, I think that the scholar was referring to the tendency of Daoists to want to leave well enough alone and avoid sticking your neck out.

At this point in time, the best example that I can think of is the story where a representative of a king was sent to recruit Zhuangzi for an important post. The official found the sage at the bank of a stream fishing. When asked if he would accept the job, the Daoist replied by comparing a live turtle in the river before them to a dead one who's body was revered as a sacred object in a famous temple. Which one would the messenger rather be? The reply, of course, was the live one. Zhuangzi then sent him off saying that he'd like to continue to be able to waddle through the mud like that turtle before them.

This anecdote can be read several ways, but surely one of the more obvious ones is that it is a reference to the fact that getting involved in the bureaucracy of a minor state was a very dangerous job back in the time of Zhuangzi---many people ended up losing political intrigues and on the executioner's block. But ambitious people still pursued these jobs because they were attracted by the wealth and power that could be had. And Confucians also sought high office out of sense of duty towards the state.

I think about this sort of thing because I often find myself wondering if I made a mistake by not pursuing high office of one sort or another. Indeed, many people have told me repeatedly that I could have become a professor, a recognized clergyman, a manager, an elected official, etc, if I had just tried to pursue this sort of thing. I've always justified avoiding this sort of thing because I couldn't handle the grotesque compromises that the people I've known in these situations have had to accept. Surprisingly, as I got to know many people in these sorts of positions, it became clear to me that most of them do not see the problems that I do, so they do not end up feeling that they are "sell-outs". This doesn't change the fact that I would have felt that I was selling out by getting involved in a career path, but it does explain why so many other people cannot understand why I didn't. They simply do not see the pitfalls and land mines that I do.

This insight came to me most clearly when I was asked to participate in a panel discussion after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I sat on the stage with a Catholic priest, an assistant minister of the federal government, a representative of the Israel lobby, etc. What struck me was that these people hadn't a clue about the existential horror that constantly exists at our feet and the grotesque results of the foolish choices that we all too often make.

I remember the priest prattling on about how everything bad that happens takes place because of God's plan. I looked out into the audience and I saw a little boy who looked like he had lost all his hair due to chemotherapy and he was absolutely transfixed by this statement. I also heard the government member going on about how she felt totally drained by the absolute horror of what had happened that day.

My response was to read from the DaoDeJing about how "Heaven and Earth are not humane--", to point out that more people die in traffic accidents every year than did at the Twin Towers, that the death toll that day would have been a very quiet day in WWII, that it is important to remember that the whole world looks like a nail to a hammer and how we must fight against the temptation to go blundering around like a wounded bear in reaction to the events. Alas, my fears all came true and my advice all went way over the heads of the other people on the podium.

As I write this post I wonder about that priest. How does he not feel a sense of intense shame when he talks about "God's plan" to someone like a child suffering from cancer? Is the pain there but not expressed because he feels constrained by his social role? Or is he just oblivious to the absurdity of saying that a kind and loving God is torturing an innocent child for some ultimately groovy purpose?

I also wonder about that politician. Because she indulged in venting her naive emotions, does she feel any guilt for the orgy of violence that resulted? Does she feel any culpability for the carnage that has and still is taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan? For the erosion of our civil liberties? Does she even think that it is job of a politician to try and control the emotions of the mob during times of national emergencies? Or is she just another stupid member of the "human herd" who just follows along with what everyone else is doing?

As a result of thinking about these issues, I've come to the conclusion that because of the time we Daoists spend in introspection, we end up seeing much more of the world around us than those people who simply follow on some sort of normal career path. This eventually makes it very, very difficult for us to slip into a normal sort of role.

This is somewhat similar to the story of the expert archer who was asked to see if he could hit the bull's eye when standing on the edge of a cliff. His fear for his safety rendered his aim worthless. Yet if he were unaware of the cliff, his aim would be flawless. In a sense, my failure to pursue a career comes from my awareness that most of the powerful people I know are standing on moral high-wires, yet don't know it. If they saw things the way I do, they probably couldn't do the job either.

Having said all of that, I have in many ways attempted to exert some force for good on society. But the ways I have chosen have all been as a "hidden" force. Instead of joining a mainstream political party and pursuing office, I've very involved in organizing a powerful Green Party that has had a significant influence on public debate. I sued Walmart to protect a Jesuit retreat centre instead of taking office in the Catholic Church. There are other examples I could cite, but the point is that I have tried to do things in a way that minimizes both the credit and the culpability that I could gain from the action. (Certainly nothing I have ever done has resulted in my making any money!)

As I get older, though, I become more and more aware that it is not a good thing to live a life in fear of any sort. Being overly cautious and careful only results in a regret and a bad death. I hope that as I continue on my path that I do not end up becoming so consumed by awareness of the difficulties we all face that I end up being totally immobilized---.