My dad loved to cook. And he loved Asian food. So, when I read of the Taoist philosopher Zuanghi’s analogy of wu wei, the condition of inaction or “not forcing things,” as that of a butcher finding the spaces within the meat’s sinews and bones to be cut (thinking of a chicken here), I, of course, imagined my dad and the small remaining part of Chinatown that my mom and I used to buy soy sauce chicken from. It’s a butcher shop in an old brick building near what was a family association’s headquarters, replete with an aging blue and red flared temple-style roof on an otherwise rectangular top. I thought of how juicy the chicken from there was, and how expertly the butcher portioned it, not really carving, but slicing, to prepare pieces of it for us in white butcher paper.
Wu wei, the Taoist principle of inaction, seems to exemplify what the Beatles called “Let it Be” – to act without acting and to achieve without, well, butchering things in the process. There was a time in my life when I was striving against a formidable force, and the advice I got was to either go with the force or to struggle against it. This force eventually toppled me in my struggle, and part of me knew that it would do so when I first encountered it. It was an interpersonal struggle with someone who had a strong and unyielding personality. I was in a position of lesser power with relationship to this person, and fighting them stressed me out to the point where I began worry about my health. To fight the good fight, sword and shield in hand, it seems, is a very Western and, perhaps, individualistic take on struggle. There has to be another way.
And yet I knew this struggle would overcome me in the end. The person’s willingness to fight for every detail, coupled with my conflict-averse orientation to life, rendered my resistance unsustainable. I knew this in my bones, but denied it. Was this knowledge an essence of the Dao, a hint of wu wei there? Does the knight ever know that she or he will lose the battle, yet still fight, knowing the fight will be lost? Maybe. I couldn’t succumb in the beginning of my struggle because I was there, and I couldn’t pet that formidable force, lounging like a big self-serving cat, because I – meaning my ego – was there too. All of this reminds me of Buddhism, of how we hold on to the small parcel of reality we call our own. And that holding on, like the Buddhist concept of maya – the everchanging energy that pervades the universe – is illusory and yet beautiful in its own right. Yet there’s something greater – call it Nature or the Dao, or perhaps break it into the elements of activity (yang) and suppleness (yin) and the energy that emanates from this coherent opposition of forces – that exists beyond our physical existence in this world.
In Daoism, I appreciate the poetry used by its philosopher-artists, especially the many analogies and aphorisms that put words to things that can only be named in parable and juxtaposition. Because the Dao seems to seek balance in even the most out-of-kilter systems, and because the Tao Te Ching probably originated in the aptly-named Warring States Period, Daoist poetry uses language that anyone can relate to. Butchering meat, water hugging the stream that it flows through: these are concepts that few of us can argue with. Their very mention seems to have a calming effect that invokes the balance of yin and yang within us.
I see a lot of yang in social justice work these days. From trying to force people to hold opinions that are not aligned with their own moral systems to “cancel culture,” the world – particularly the online world – seems overrun with yanginess.
Like the Chinese soldiers tired from the battlefield and the overworked officials in the Warring States Period, I’m weary. I yearn for a world free from conflict. I know deep in my bones that there has to be a better way. Like the Samurai were taught, I feel that in this era rife with contrast and conflict, that I need to detach a little from my own beliefs to more peacefully win the battles I must fight.
Being Open to Connection
In thinking about non-attachment, I’m reminded of a BBC documentary about feminist mothers who are raising boys. These moms struggled with being oppressed by the omnipresent Male Voice/Voices yet wanted to nurture the young men they loved. The last woman who was interviewed in the program was touched when she and her teenage son belted out the chorus of a Sia song in the car ride home together after her he had been sent to the principal’s office for doing something horrible. In their moment of song, the mom realized that she and her son had the same values and culture, even if he was a boy who expressed them differently from her. This pair went on to create a funny play for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival about those differences, body swapping to play each other, the boy’s frustrations and the mom’s righteous indignation fully on view, albeit in the other’s pantomimed delivery.
In a way, the mother and son’s yin moment of belting out a song together bridged this pair’s gulf in a way that I hope that my writing will help others do the same. Their moment obliterated each other’s egos and allowed communication between them – two people who could have become estranged even though they obviously loved each other.
I think this is true of Western society as well.
From what I’ve observed, the social justice folks who engage in some of the yangy language policing methods are some of the most compassionate and kind people I know. Sensitive folks who might be trying to insulate themselves by preventing others from robustly expressing their differences. In the end, both “sides” love America or Britain or Hong Kong or wherever they reside but use different terminology to express that love. Sure, there are people who genuinely don’t care, but most of us are willing to fight one another precisely because we care so much.
So what do we do in such fraught environments?
I say that we listen and try to build from a foundation of shared values, even if those values spring from surprising places.
Listening Deeply to Others and Ourselves
I have been given my father’s gift (or curse, depending on how you look at it) of having a friendly face. People tell me things, sometimes things I don’t want to hear. Sometimes politically Right-wing things that clash with my own values. And yet the very same people who do this return my neighbor’s dog safely to her front door and extend friendship to me, despite our differences. I chat every morning and rely on a friend who has political views that are very different from mine.
Some might say that the people who open up to me do this because I’m white or in some other way “like them.” Instead, I think they see my humanity and are willing to extend theirs. This identification, in my view, is something that is happening more on the Left than the Right (or at least I hope it is). I have faith and evidence that the people who welcome me would welcome folks of other races, religions, and political beliefs as well.
This lesson comes from a mistake that I made about a month and a half ago. At the time, it seemed like we (the U.S.) were about to go war with Iran, and I was posting articles and photo montages on Facebook opposing the war. A person in my friends list was for the war, for what I think was an uncommon reason – restoring Iran to a better time for everyone. I admit that I was angered by his assumption – because I don’t believe war should ever be used – even though I was aware he believed, to the best of my knowledge, that the war with Iran was a just one. I finally replied sarcastically to one of his “the Shah’s policies were just” quotes and he unfriended me. To me this felt like a failure because I had asked him to engage with me peacefully instead of with reactionism or anger.
It angered me that he, the yin to my yang (or vice-versa), was posting on my wall when I was trying to express my concern and anger about something so important. In other words, in a big way, my ego was tied up in what I was posting.
Yet, during our conflict, I was tempted to address the root of our differences. It was obvious that we both cared about Iran, but that we held different assumptions and values that were guiding our opinions about a war with this country.
I wonder if we could have simply agreed that we shared a concern about Iran and gone our separate ways. And if that basic acknowledgement might have built instead burnt a bridge between us.
Instead, my friend and I picked sides and fought the 1979 Iranian Revolution again, however many cultures and decades of distance we had from it. Our removed stances – neither of us were culturally Iranian or Persian – had a quality of the theater of the absurd because of this. We were actors using our opinions as guns and going, “Bang bang bang!” as Eddie Izzard so aptly puts in one of his standup routines.
Looking back, I’m not sure if I would be able to debate reasonably with anyone about a war with Iran. I’m too mad at the political system and too scared of the prospect of yet another conflict in the Middle East. In hindsight, I might have clarified my boundaries by telling my Facebook friend this, and he might have understood and backed off. It may have been a balanced approach in the situation – admitting my yangy impulses and having the bravery to be vulnerable.
I’m not sure if using the suppleness of yin to build a bridge would have worked, but it’s worth a chance next time I encounter a similar situation.
I must say that I have a caveat to my advice: You should never feel forced to debate, or even talk, about something that you disagree with. I was triggered by my Facebook friend’s confrontation of my values. It might have been better to have made my contentious posts invisible to him. And yet, like a moth drawn to a flame, my ego wanted to fight. Sometimes, it’s best to be silent or to walk away from a fight if it means preserving your own well-being.
Another caveat: You should never feel obligated to debate your own humanity with anyone. This is important because you might feel attacked and end up attacking your opponent. You might internalize your opponent’s hurtful words and continue the fight for far longer than they would. You might become triggered and do self-destructive things afterwards.
With that said, I believe that we need to stop sequestering ourselves and deciding on verdicts about our fellow human beings’ character without first giving ourselves a chance to make a connection.
The worst that could happen is friendship.
Think of a time when you were unable to let something be, even when part of you knew that would be the better option. What part of yourself (be this your ego or otherwise) edged you on? In the future, how would you address and calm this part in similar situations?
Allen says they see a lot of yang in social justice work. Do you agree with their observation? Why or why not? What are some examples to support your answer?
Sam Allen (they/them pronouns) is a former seminary student who was called by the Sacred when they were five years old. At that tender age, they remember praying on their knees to God. Sam’s works have also been published by their local newspaper’s weekly and Sam performs autobiographical pieces in their community. They live with their cat in their beloved hometown of Stockton, California. You can access Sam’s portfolio at theprose.com under the author name Samal230.