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---.

No comments: