Dao Du Jour II, Day 20: Mutually Assured Projection

Chapter 20: Being Different

“Ignorant, ignorant.

Most people are so bright.

I’m the one that’s dull.

Most people are so keen.

I don’t have the answers.

Oh, I’m desolate, at sea,

adrift, without harbor.

Everybody has something to do.

I’m the clumsy one, out of place.

I’m the different one,

for my food

Is the milk of the mother.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Here, LeGuin casts Lao-Tzu less like an ancient, egoless Daoist sage and more like a modern, neurotically self-conscious urban dweller. What gives?

I suspect she aims to help the modern reader see the tortured constellation of her psyche more clearly, embrace it, laugh at it, and thus transfigure it.

The psychic condition toward which this chapter points can perhaps best be described as Imposter Syndrome, a condition so common nowadays that it has become all but existential. Imposter Syndrome is a function of perfectionism and toxic positivity. The social machinery here operates according to a logic of Mutually Assured Projection. We unconsciously project onto others all the qualities we wish to possess, and vice versa, and consciously conspire to project an image of “brightness,” of having “something to do,” of having it all together. We fail to see that everyone is improvising and, as the popular saying goes, everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. What results is an aspirational arms race in which no one can win. As in the film War Games, the only way to win is to quit the game.

Or, perhaps, to realize that it is just a game. If you’re a live player, you live to play, not to win; you treat the game as the real thing, not its end. In this regard, the opponent is not the other players, but yourself. As psychologist Robert Kegan likes to put it, “You either feast on your shadow, or starve on your ego.” The beginning of wisdom, as Socrates would agree, is the recognition of ignorance.  

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