Dao Du Jour: Day 38

Chapter 38

“When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.

When goodness is lost, there is morality.

When morality is lost, there is ritual.

Ritual is the husk of true faith,

The beginning of chaos.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

This chapter is a surgical strike against Confucius, for whom li, ritual propriety, was the key ingredient to a successful society. The Confucian saw the ideal society as a carefully choreographed play aimed at maximizing order. The Taoist saw this as a social straightjacket snuffing out spontaneity, sure to court the very thing it tried to control. Lao-tzu is the trickster in the garden Confucius cultivated, telling you to live a little, bite the apple, and see what happens. 

For the traditionalist, rituals are sacred and separate from the profane. 

For the modernist, rituals are silly because nothing is sacred and therefore nothing is profane. 

For the postmodernist, rituals are sacred but found in the profane–and the mundane. 

Growing up in a modern culture, it’s hard not to encounter a religious ritual like the Catholic mass as pointless, inefficient, hollow. There is no room for individual thought or action, since the participant is purely passive. Of course, in truth, the idea is for the soul to be active in prayer. But since modernity, afflicted by what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world,” doesn’t quite believe in souls, a mass seems like a big waste of time—and boring as all hell.

Yet after a while, everything on the modern plane seems like a big waste of time, because nothing really matters. Since nothing is sacred, time isn’t really worth saving, so it can’t really be wasted. The distractions designed to fend off the existential ennui evoked by an entropic universe start to lose their luster, and rituals once again become interesting.

For the postmodern “spiritual but not religious” set, there is no ritual more popular than the morning coffee. That caffeine has become the de facto sacrament of the information age, slavishly imbibed before we cross the threshold into the temple of productivity, speaks volumes about our culture’s priorities. Caffeine may be one of the “old gods,” but in the wasteland any god will do. But apart from that, the re-enchantment of the world has, for many of us, taken the form of simply being more present in the most mundane activities. These little sips of quiet we steal away before being sucked into the maelstrom of the marketplace—the coffee, the meditation, the yoga, the gratitude journals—certainly contain notes of Daoism. But this nibbling at the margins will not quite satisfy. It is as though we know we have to hold our breath all day, and inhale as many big gulps of air as we can before plunging into the fray.

Contra conventional wisdom, though, the traditional attitude has much to recommend it. The Sabbath is not the “end” of the week, a kind of bonus-round tacked on to the main event, a chance to get some R and R to be productive the week after; but it is the “end” of the week in the sense of the purpose of the week, the answer to the question of why the work, why the week—why time—matters at all. As Josh Cohen explains in his gem of a book Not Working, “The Sabbath, explicitly sanctifying non-work, encourages us to imitate this divine lassitude; its disappearance from contemporary life may have as much to do with the sacralization of work as it does with the secularization of society.” The truth is that modernity tells a noble lie about religion; as David Foster Wallace put it, there’s no such thing as atheism–everybody worships. And modernity worships the false idol of work.

The only way to recover the “true faith”–to ascend from chaos back to up to the Dao–is with what John Lewis called “good trouble.” A little chaos now is like a vaccine that inoculates us against a lot of chaos later. It’s true that we need order as an “antidote to chaos,” as Jordan Peterson puts it, but after a while order becomes boring and unbearable. The routines that streamline our lives, the habits that William James called the great flywheel of society, over time congeal into ruts that stifle the spirit. Chaos can be an antidote to order. Rituals are great, as long as we aren’t too religious about them. A little chaos in the morning, a little chaos at work, a little chaos on the Sabbath.

A little chaos, not too much.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?