I often have little patience for "groovy, hippie Daoists" who seem to interpret this ideal as an excuse to never get engaged in any sort of effort at all---especially one of a social nature. "Why bother trying to make the world a better place? What will be, will be." I've always seen this rejection of civic responsibility as not much more than laziness.
But having said that, there are instances when this attitude is tremendously important. Perhaps the dividing line is whether or not the decision to be like water and flow around an obstacle is as easy as falling off a log, or, whether it involves a great deal of internal struggle.
People usually think of "going with the flow" by referring to simply not doing something that would be a bother to do anyway. But what if you have tremendous emotional attachment to something and "going with the flow" involves fighting against that attachment? I remember reading an essay by a social worker who was trying to adapt Daoist principles to her practice. She cited the example of a hard-working Chinese immigrant who had absolutely busted his ass for years to build up a successful restaurant to only see organized crime take it over. The objective reality was that there really was nothing he could do to get it back, so after much mental anguish and struggle he decided to fall back on his cultural heritage and accept the loss and let it go.
The social worker said that Westerners were horrified by his attitude, but since she came from a similar culture, she could see how his attitude had really helped him deal with his problem.
A less dramatic example often happens at work. Let's face it, a lot of very intelligent, well-educated people are working for managers who seem to be not much more than idiots. How do these people emotionally deal with the situations that this forces themselves into? I'm sure many readers have seen situations like this. Institutions where people do not want to take responsibility for declaring items surplus, so warehouse space is rented to keep surplus items in indefinite storage.
|The obligatory Dilbert cartoon|
I've spent long hours grinding my teeth over this stuff, and heard thousands of hours of co-workers bitch about the same things. After long thought, I've come to a couple conclusions.
First of all, no matter how intelligent we might think that we are individually, the odds are pretty good that if anyone who ever bitched about management were made managers, they'd probably do equally goofy things. Problems come about because people have blind spots, because they find themselves in situations where they have to deal with dumb things themselves, and, because they find themselves overwhelmed by responsibilities that they do not have the time and resources to adequately deal with. Even the smartest people can find themselves in similar binds and screw up.
Secondly, no matter what job postings may say, it is important to realize that hiring practices are not about getting the best person possible for the position, but rather about getting a "known quantity". People often bitterly complain about "quotas" for people like police officers. They say that the best man didn't get the job because there was a push to get women or "ethnics" onto the force. What this complaint misses, however, is that hiring is never about getting the "best man", but rather about getting someone who is "good enough". Frankly, the pool of people who can adequately fill any particular position usually dramatically exceeds the number of openings. So it isn't that hard to get someone who is "good enough".
Once the people who are good enough are identified, then other issues come into play. In the case of police, it is important to try and get the force to look like the people that they are policing. It is also important to have a pool of officers with useful secondary skills---such as having officers who speak languages and come from other cultures to help with issues in the immigrant community. If someone speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese, he is worth hiring even if he is a bit short and out of shape, and didn't score at the absolute top of his entrance exam.
The same issues come into play with regard to management. For example, one thing that I have found that is strongly selected for in hiring is "attitude". People have to obviously believe in the core project of the workplace. If someone seems to believe that the institution's success is really, really, really important, then they will have a better chance of being hired. Cynics like myself, who don't really think that most workplaces are all that important, just don't come across as being "with the program". So someone who is the absolute smartest might not actually be hired because the institution would rather have someone who is gungho about putting into practice the latest idiotic idea of the higher-ups.
They don't really want excellence in management. Instead, they want competency in following orders. There is a significant distinction. So why should someone get all bent out of shape when managers do dumb things? Their job isn't to do a really good job, it's to follow the higher ups around like puppy dogs, do what they are told, and, not do anything that is truly amazingly dumb.
Finally, the other thing to remember about working for institutions is that we only feel upset if we self-identify with the institution in one way or another. If we feel abused and angry being ordered around doing stupid stuff, we only get upset if we think we can and should do something better. But if instead one simply sees work as a means of making money, none of this stuff matters. If you want to pay me a living wage to do something that is pretty much pointless, then go right ahead. With that mindset, the only things that matter are whether or not the job is dangerous, exhausting---and how much I am getting paid. Everything else is irrelevant.
There are other issues, of course. I might get annoyed at work if I am asked to do something that is objectively evil and causes misery around the world. I might also be asked to do something that is illegal. But to my way of thinking these both come down to the question of safety. An illegal activity might lead to imprisonment or worse, so I will avoid that. Something that is objectively damaging to the environment or human society has to be weighed as being more so than the rest of our stupidly destructive civilization. If it is, I'd suggest that it too is dangerous. If not personally, certainly to the world around us---which, as a Daoist, I strongly self-identify with. People have every right to struggle against and avoid danger. If there is a chance to influence things for the better, by all means struggle. It, in your opinion, there isn't, just walk away and don't give it another thought.
And, of course, not giving "it another thought", is not easily done. I dare say that the Chinese immigrant I mentioned above didn't find it easy to simply "not give another thought" to the business that a bunch criminals took away from him! But his cultural background told him that the best way to deal with the situation was to strive for that ideal. In fact, I suspect he busted his ass striving for that ideal! But it was worth doing, because eventually his social worker believed he achieved a level of equanimity about the situation. This is the difference between what I would call real Daoism and
"Hippie Daoism". Real Daoism is based on hard work, Kung Fu, and it involves helping yourself deal with tough, nasty problems. Hippy Daoism will disappoint because it is not equipped to deal with the sometimes harsh realities of life. Walking through a forest with a smile on your face is a nice thing---but sometimes a panther will jump out of a tree and you'd better have something to deal with that situation too!
The "Hippie Daoists" often make a big distinction between Buddhism and Daoism because they don't like all the meditation that goes into formal Buddhist study. I have some issues about this too, more because I think Western Buddhists have taken a very complex, integrated practical philosophy and reduced it to one key component: meditation. Daoism isn't well known, so people tend to read the Dao De Jing, and project their assumptions onto it. And as a result, they don't associate it with formal meditation. I would assert that this is somewhat accurate. But there is still a lot of hard work involved, even if there is less time spent on the mats. One very tough practice is to be like that Chinese immigrant and try to be like water when something very nasty happens to you. It can also be hard to do when the boss is acting like a jerk!