Chapter 21: The Empty Heart
“The greatest power is the gift
of following the Way alone.
How the Way does things
Is hard to grasp, elusive.
Elusive, yes, hard to grasp,
Yet there are thoughts in it.
Hard to grasp, yes, elusive,
Yet there are things in it.
Hard to make out, yes, and obscure,
Yet there is spirit in it,
There is certainty in it.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
This week, I tested positive for COVID, and was informed that I had to spend 10 days in isolation. The dread specter haunting and hounding the world the year last finally found its way into my body. After some hang wringing and teeth gnashing, after entertaining numbing myself for a week with Netflix and other drugs, I surprised myself. I decided to treat my isolation time as a retreat, to turn my quarantine into a quest, to receive the diagnosis as a gift. For reasons I needn’t share, it came at a most auspicious time in my life, where I found myself, like Dante, “midway through the course of life…alone in a dark wood.”
The Mike Judge film Idiocracy has proved prescient these last five years. The film depicts a dystopian American future in which people have become dumb to the point of barely being able to communicate, civic institutions have collapsed, a tide of garbage threatens to engulf everything, and no one knows how things work anymore, including how to grow crops. The material infrastructure of civilization is collapsing because its mental infrastructure has withered.
The film is aptly titled. When we hear the term “idiot,” we think of aptitude; it denotes a person with a low IQ. But the Greek term from which our word is derived was more about attitude; an idiot was a private person who did not concern himself with public affairs. In this latter sense, one could be a clever idiot. For not only the Greek philosophers but for the civic culture of the time, such a person was both morally and intellectually deficient; he lacked self-knowledge, and did not understand his place in the order of things. He not only failed to fulfill his obligations to the community, but to know that he had any, or that he belonged to one. He did not see that he was a node in a network, not an island unto himself.
The pandemic and the bungled response to it was, among many other things, a true apocalypse in the original sense of the term—an “unveiling”—that revealed the idiocracy behind the curtain of our culture. The isolation into which so many were forced was a function of the failure to see how interconnected we are. In 2016, Rebecca Solnit dubbed it the “ideology of isolation”:
What keeps the ideology of isolation going is going to extremes. If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end in denying the reality of facts, which are after all part of a network of systematic relationships between language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion, or rather you imagine both as products on the free market, which one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning.
The ideology of isolation is what unites climate denial, vaccine reticence, and post-truth politics.
But the silver lining is that the pandemic forced us to face isolation itself, in its most carnal, naked form. You are forced to remove yourself from society because of how tightly bound you are to it, because a strange thing that can’t exist apart from human bodies courses through you, because your microbiome is bound to the microbiosphere. If you venture outside, you don’t just see other people, you see the empty space between you and them as a dense reality demanding respect. Like the kingdom of code in which we are virtual citizens, we are, in Sherry Turkle’s formulation, “alone, together.” You are forced to not just know, but feel, that you are part of the conspiracy of life. Plotinus pithily described the spiritual journey as the “flight from the alone to the alone.” From the alone to the all one.
How the Way does things is through storms swirling, pathogens spreading, climates changing, and regimes collapsing. These things are only hard to grasp because we are grasping. If we but follow them, they will ferry us beyond them. A gift cannot be grasped, and a grasp cannot give.
What thoughts and things and spirit and certainty await us in the inner outer darkness?
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”