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 correct categories. Marshall Davis paraphrases the first line this way: “The mind is the problem.”


Now, I don’t really want to fully embrace this complete epistemological agnosticism. I’m not about to say that everything I know is entirely relative and that I have no ability whatsoever to connect with any real ground of truth. But I also think we desperately need to hear Lao Tzu’s critique here. We always need to be reminded just how limited our perspective is, how conditioned we are by our environments and cultures - to the point that our “knowledge” is often little more than getting on board with groupthink. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of an even more basic fact: that we have a perspective. We often forget that our thinking can never truly be 100% objective and disconnected from our own lenses on life. We can make efforts to be more fair and well-rounded and understanding of all the data, but if our thinking were completely devoid of subjectivity, then it wouldn’t be human.


I cover the first line in the podcast episode, but for lack of space I’ll skip that section here. The next few lines ask two questions. What is the difference between yes and no? And although Stephen Mitchell’s translation (above) asks about success and failure, the more literal translation is, “What is the difference between good and evil?” Lao Tzu says there isn’t much difference at all - if any.


As always, moderation is very important. I don’t think we need to accept that there is no difference between good and evil in order to learn a lot from this section. As I’ve said before, I’m not looking to build doctrines from the Tao te Ching, and I also don’t think that Lao Tzu was totally denying the fact that some things are evil. However, if we read it well, we can see that this chapter reminds us that many times our view of these things are highly conditioned by our perspective. In the show, I give several examples of how our ideas of the “good guys” and “bad guys” are always informed by our context and cultural perspective; life is rarely (if ever) as black and white as the movies make it.


The challenge of being different


The thing that makes this chapter really unique compared to the ones we’ve seen so far is that Lao Tzu gets really personal and even depressing. He focuses on how he has chosen to be totally different from his materialistic, pleasure-seeking, goal-driven, busybody, calculating culture and take on characteristics of the Tao - which makes him seem distant, homeless, weak, confused, stupid, withdrawn, aimless, depressed, and like a total idiot in the eyes of those around him.


He starts it all off by challenging our assumptions that we need to fear what the people around us fear. It’s kind of a vague line in the original Chinese, but let’s stick with Gia-fu Feng for our purposes here. You may want to compare a few other translations, though, because there are a few ways of interpreting this line.


Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!

-Translator: Gia-fu Feng


If we extrapolate backwards from this question and compare it to the rest of the chapter, then another question is implied: why do we need to desire what others desire? Why do we have to play the game of falling into the rat race and getting caught up in cultural idolatries? To put it more simply, why do we so often behave like children and follow the crowd with “everyone else is doing it” thinking? Mitchell gets at this when he translates the line a bit more loosely:


Must you value what others value,

avoid what others avoid?

How ridiculous!

-Translator: Stephen Mitchell


Next, Lao Tzu gives us five examples of what this looks like, by using two recurring phrases: “the people” and what they do or say or think; and “I alone” to distinguish himself. The initial effect is that he sounds like a real downer - the good vibes are gone for the time being. Still, his critique of society is decisive, and there are plenty of lessons for us to learn here.


The translations here have huge differences in wording due to vague language. Here is just one, but I will make notes of all the different possibilities as I address each line.


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. [Literally: I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts. We’ll get there in a minute]

-Translator: Gia-fu Feng


The first of the five distinctions Lao Tzu makes between himself and the culture is that others are enjoying themselves like at a feast or a parade. They are joyous, going to the park and having lots of fun. On the other hand, he is, according to the different translations: drifting, not knowing where I am, unconcerned, expressionless, motionless, passive, quiet, uninvolved, still, revealing nothing, inert, confused, like a fool, empty-minded, in chaos, dejected, having nowhere to return to, or lost the way home.


This is a confusing contrast when we first read it. Doesn’t it seem like Lao Tzu has got it wrong and the culture has it right here? However, there is another line that makes it a bit more clear: Lao Tzu says he is “like a baby who has not yet learned how to smile.” The general idea seems to be that he finds himself able to live simply, without seeking and enjoying all of the material and earthly pleasures that the people around him are craving. Because of this, he feels like a social outcast, though.


Derek Lin’s interpretation is a nice application to the modern world. The “great feast” in the text represents the physical pleasures of life, and what literally says “climbing up the garden terrace” represents sight-seeing, social activities, and thrill, or what he calls “party hardy!” Instead, Lao Tzu prefers quietness instead of parties and simple pleasures instead of sensory “feasts.”


I don’t think we need to become as totally detached from our world as Lao Tzu did, but it’s important to remember that those who choose to follow the simple way of Tao - or the simple way of Jesus - that challenges the idols of our culture will often find ourselves feeling a bit cast out. The way is narrow and all that stuff. Jesus said, “A prophet is without honor in his hometown” while struggling with the fact that the people from his own community rejected him and his ministry. He also struggled with the fact that when his teachings got difficult or confusing, many people deserted him.


The second distinction Lao Tzu makes is that others have more than they need, but he has nothing and is abandoned or even destitute. I’ve talked quite a lot about how relentlessly the Tao te Ching critiques materialism and greed, so I won’t go into that here again, although you can check out the episode “More Money, More Problems” if you want to hear more on that. This stanza reminds me of Jesus’ words, “The son of man has no place to lay his head,” as well as his challenge to the rich young ruler that he should “sell everything” to come follow him.


The third distinction is that other people are clear, or bright, or clever, or calculating, but Lao Tzu is dim, or weak, or dark, or confused. The fourth one is that people are sharp, clever, scrutinizing, confident, or pursuing effectiveness; whereas Lao Tzu is dull, stupid, muddled, aimless, vague, uncertain, pensive, or withdrawn. And the last one is that people are busy, full of plans, purpose, and goals; whereas Lao Tzu is aimless, depressed, unknowing, dull, uncouth, stubborn, lowly, useless, backward, inept, or foolish.


Lao Tzu’s harsh words feel jarring here. The TTC seems to indicate pretty strongly that those who simplify and get in touch with the Tao are the ones who see the clearest. Rather than giving an actual value judgment, it seems that Lao Tzu is describing how he appears to a culture that is always seeking more and more. These descriptions seem to talk about those who were always calculating better ways to advance themselves socially, financially, politically, or any other way to climb the ladders in life. He ends up feeling like others view him as a crazy person because he doesn’t engage in all of that. Instead, he prefers simple pleasures, a simple life, and a simple way of being present and in touch with the world around him.


There are a couple lines in the middle of this section that aren’t totally clear, but he says he feels like he is just drifting in the ocean or floating through the sky. Some think this refers to his feelings of aimlessness and purposelessness; others seem to indicate it is actually a description of his contentment. Maybe, as it is so often with the TTC, we can’t draw a sharp line and figure out exactly which of those two he was getting at - or maybe he was just getting at both.


So, at the end of it all, Lao Tzu says (a bit awkwardly) that he is “nourished by the great mother,” or more literally that he “drinks from the great mother’s breasts.” Here we have another example of him talking about the Tao using feminine imagery, which was a big focus of a previous post. To me, it seems that he is making just one incredibly important point: the only way we can really live like this and be healthy and fulfilled is if we are in touch with a deeper reality. Call it the Tao, God, the Christ, the Holy Spirit - whatever you call it (or just be like me and call it all of them), we can only live this way if we are being sustained and nourished by it. Without that, we lose sight of the greater purpose; and rather than clarity and insight, we might just find ourselves consumed by nihilism and despair. In all of our study, prayer, and meditation - and I say this for myself as much as for you - I pray that we never forget that.


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©2019 by Corey Farr.