How to see things as they are without trying to control them.
Have you ever thought to yourself, or said aloud, “I want to make a difference in the world”?
Certainly, I have. Many times. Over the last few years, I began to reframe this cliché to say instead, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
The difference between the two sentences is that the first is mostly meaningless. “I want to make a difference.” So what? And who cares! Wanting to make a difference could be for something good and universal, or it could be about the need for control and power.
But the statement, “I want to be the change I want to see in the world,” inspires leadership, transformation, and personal responsibility rooted in the virtue of human dignity.
The Tao Te Ching offers a contemplation on the concepts of change, control, and leadership.
Here is verse 29 from Stephen Mitchel’s translation:
Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the centre of the circle.1
None of us can change the world — all we can change is ourselves and how we relate to the world.
The Tao is not suggesting that the world is sacred in a religious sense, rather ‘sacred’ can be understood as a sense of wonder and something we will never be able to fully understand.
Tao means something like, a way of living, or how we make our way in the world. Tao was never meant to be a religion, a dogma, an ideology, or a set of rules. It is a way of being oneself by being one with the world — “at the centre of the circle.”
Just like you can’t change another person, you can only improve yourself.
We see this clearly with climate change as a result of how we are polluting the earth by depleting resources and using them in a way that creates toxicity and waste.
This is the sin of our ego when we see the world and people as polarizing and in opposition to ourselves — as a subject versus object — instead of subject-subject or inter-connected relationships. The states of being contrasted in verse 29 demonstrate the natural balance and equilibrium of life — that there is a time for everything. This balance is also called yin and yang — or as an intellectual construct, a binary or a duality.
You can only go so far before you have to return to the centre in some sense.
If you take more than what there is, something else must be taken — or destroyed — to make up for that consumption.
There is no sustainability if we take without replenishing that which can be easily replenished. When the ego only sees everything outside of ourselves as an object, the value we place on those objects is how they will benefit us — exclusively. But if we see everything as a subject in relation to ourselves, we come from a place of connection, compassion, and oneness.
We would thus make dramatically different choices if our actions harmed another subject, which would, in turn, directly cause harm to ourselves.
The circle is the place of equity and equilibrium.
In the centre, there is no being better than, or being more potent than anyone or anything else.
Instead, there is complete exposure and visibility for all to see from all sides. The person at the centre — the subject — must then be mindful that their actions can have visible and identifiable consequences when they try to control what they perceive to be objects in their environment.
If this is confusing, consider what everyone in the world experienced from 2020 to about 2022.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and lengthy lockdowns demonstrated how control is an illusion.
Verse 29 is a useful filter to understand what we experienced as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic and its resulting impact on society.
What we witnessed — and hopefully what many of us saw revealed about ourselves and society as a whole — is how challenging it can be to change our behaviours and actions. Collectively, we had to endure physical distancing and social isolation. Many of us lost our source of income and the associated feeling of safety and security. Many of us suffered mental health issues, social isolation, partner abuse, or other forms of prejudice while forced to remain at “home.”
We struggled with how to manage our feelings, thoughts, words, and actions in the middle of experiencing a complete absence of control.
“Yes, there seems to be a time for such things, and I choose not to remain in extremes of resentment and anger. But there is also my desire to do something about these circumstances — that feeling is also a part of the natural law unfolding. I choose to act on my inner desire to rectify these conditions. By remaining internally peaceful and avoiding the extremes, I will impact the world in the same loving way that the Tao eternally manifests from love and kindness.”2
When we see ourselves as one with the world, we demonstrate a kind of self-love that is a form of personal responsibility to respect the world and all its inhabitants as subjects and not objects.
When we see ourselves as residing “at the centre of the circle” we open ourselves up to loving-kindness. The alternative is not pretty and the pandemic helped many of us to see clearly, and with great discomfort, what’s not working, what’s hurting, what’s ugly, what’s sick, and what’s broken. Many people saw the world from the centre of the circle with a new set of eyes — an awareness that has always been there, but because of daily routines and unquestioned social norms, they were distracted from the central point of looking outwards.
We have an opportunity — post-pandemic — to respond in a way that will improve society and change our behaviours and actions to diminish our need to control the world and other people.
This is a tipping point for humanity.
I urge you not to ignore the harms we have caused the planet and other human beings with aggressive capitalism, unsustainable production, gender and sexual inequality, human rights violations and a lack of human dignity.
If — as a global society — we don’t walk far enough from what have previously done towards how we need to behave, we will lose the opportunity for profound social transformation and a better, kinder, more loving humanity.
Thank you for reading Untenable by Darren Stehle. This post is public so feel free to share it.