“Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
One of the bestsellers of the aughts was The Purpose-Driven Life, by pastor Rick Warren. The term “purpose” functions in our cultural lexicon somewhat like the term “meaning”: a nebulous, semi-spiritual cypher that contains multitudes, that can be put to any purpose and carry any meaning. And the pursuit of purpose has much to recommend it.
But for Lao-tzu, purpose is a trap. Before she was secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice was a gifted pianist. Her teacher told her biographer that while Rice was technically proficient, she lacked the “disciplined abandon” needed to become a great concert pianist.
Where Confucianism pushes us to be disciplined, Daoism calls us to abandon. We need both.
The idea that what we decide (“yes or no”) and whether our efforts bear fruit (“success or failure”) doesn’t really matter sounds nihilistic. Nothing matters, so why bother?
But the Daoist receives this “nothing matters” as gospel. It is the good news that we are not on trial, that we are not being tested, and that the weight of the world is not on our shoulders. That means that we are free—to play, to create, to fail—to build sandcastles with the intensity and abandon of a child.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”