The one where Lao Tzu gets all emo (chapter 20)


Chapter 20 is all about being different. The first time you read it, it sounds pretty depressing. It’s the first time Lao Tzu gets really personal about just how different he is from the people around him, and he almost sounds like an emo teenager saying how sad and lonely he is. He has quite a lot to say about how living “differently” isn’t always the popular choice, and it can make you seem pretty weird to the people around you. Before that comes in, though, he lays the groundwork in the first few lines.


Stop thinking, and end your problems.

What difference between yes and no?

What difference between success and failure?

Must you value what others value,

avoid what others avoid?


How ridiculous!


Other people are excited,

as though they were at a parade.

I alone don’t care,

I alone am expressionless,

like an infant before it can smile.


Other people have what they need;

I alone possess nothing.


I alone drift about,

like someone without a home.

I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.


Other people are bright;

I alone am dark.

Other people are sharper;

I alone am dull.

Other people have a purpose;


I alone don’t know.

I drift like a wave on the ocean,

I blow as aimless as the wind.


I am different from ordinary people.

I am nourished by the Great Mother.

-Translator: Stephen Mitchell


What's the difference?


The first few lines of this chapter are basically a full-on epistemological assault. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with truth - what we can know and how we can know what we know. But in this chapter, Lao Tzu says that so much of what you say you “know” is very rooted in your own limited perspective. It’s almost like he’s questioning our ability to really know anything at all, or at least our ability to divide up what we know into the corre