“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.)
Two thousand years after Lao-tzu, Hamlet would echo this idea: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Think about the last political conversation you had with someone you disagreed with. Did you make any progress? I suspect not. In our post-truth informational ecology, the conflict is not merely over what is good, but over what is true. There is nothing true or false, but Facebook makes it so.
A paradox arises: isn’t it then “good” to realize that all things are both good and bad, depending on your perspective? That strikes the mind as a contradiction only if we confuse thoughts with things. Daoism invites you to consider that contradiction, ambiguity, and paradox—put more positively, mystery—are not just bugs of bad thinking, but features of reality. And beyond this, the more we cling to one perspective, one half of a dichotomy, the more we strengthen its opposite.
Lao-tzu is not pushing nihilism and nudging us toward Hamlet’s existential despair. He is doing what Jesus does in the Gospel of Matthew when he says “You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” The word hypocrite is related to the word for “actor.” We are all hypocrites in a sense—actors in the play of society, characters with unique desires, preferences, and histories with our own ideas about what is beautiful, good, and true. Wisdom is realizing our hypocrisy, which is also to realize that we are more than that character—we are caught in the broader cosmic drama. As Wittgenstein put it, “to draw a line to thought is to think both sides.” Practical wisdom is skillfully holding those two perspectives together while acting in the world.
We can hold our masks lightly. We can, that is, play our roles with a view to the script as a whole–especially the part that is unwritten–rather than see ourselves as the center and the script as fixed. When we do so, we create space—for ourselves to realize what is “bad” in what we consider “good,” and for our fellow actors to see the same—and to breathe.