Dao Du Jour II, Day 22: How to Zag

Chapter 22: Growing Downward

“Be broken to be whole,

twist to be straight.

Be empty to be full.

Wear out to be renewed.

Have little and gain much.

Have much and get confused.


What they used to say in the old days,

‘Be broken to be whole,’

was that mistaken?

Truly, to be whole

Is to return.”

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

One of the reasons that John Kerry lost the 2004 election—and, perhaps, one of the reasons we are twenty years in Afghanistan and 20 years behind on climat change—is that he broke a cardinal rule of politics: thou shalt not flip flop. He infamously remarked that he was “before the war before I was against it.” Cue the predictably devastating attack ad of Kerry windsurfing to and fro, mixing indecision with out-of-touch New England Brahminism: “John Kerry: he blows with the wind.”

The same rule rules mainstream philosophy: thou shalt not contradict oneself.

In this chapter, Lao-Tzu appears to break this rule, explicitly refuting the first statement with the last. What is going on?

Before sorting that out, let us address the content. The text advances a piece of perennial wisdom. In Biblical language, it acknowledges that we are all “broken cisterns.” The Babel Project is the same as the ego project: brokenness and wholeness, earth and heaven, darkness and light, are opposites, and salvation is crossing from one to the other. Becoming whole is not an operation you perform or a goal you achieve, it is something given to you, a free grace you cannot make or manifest through your own physical and mental powers. It is something you cannot make sense of, for the gospel is that you are whole precisely as broken. You are not whole in isolation, but in relation and as related. Put another way, you are whole as a part of the cosmos, of the body of Christ, of the 9,999 other things.

To learn this, you must learn, as Richard Rohr puts it, to “fall upward.” The Fall in Genesis is commonly understood as a moral lapse and a kind of regression. But before the Fall, Adam and Eve do not know real relationship, either with each other, or with God. They are “whole” only in the sense that a fetus is attached to its mother; they live in the dream world of the amniotic fluid. The serpent, who will only come to confused with the Devil centuries later, is typically seem as a tempter and homewrecker, upsetting the placid natural order of creation.

But to run with the Devil for a moment. The term for the devil, diabolo, originally meant “to scatter.” What is God’s method of creation? Separation and division: light from darkness, the waters above from the waters below, carving out a space for the heavenly bodies and the birds and the beasts and the sea creatures, setting aside a holy day for rest. Indeed, the act of consecration, of making something holy, is precisely to separate it out and set it aside. And his command for humanity? To be fruitful and multiply, and spread out across the earth. As Ken Wilber puts it, we do not so much move out of Eden as up from it.

The Devil’s work, then, is the continuation of creation by other means. By separating humanity from God, man from woman, man from nature, man from man, and man from himself, he paradoxically, in the fullness of time, brings them closer to real relationship. He instigates the break necessary for true wholeness, like a doctor who must re-break a crooked grown bone. The Devil demands a more perfect union. As the serpent, he is the zag to the zig of creation, the trickster that twists the straight; or rather, he reveals to us how the straight is already twisted. Just as Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, we cast the serpent from the whole, and we exile our own brokenness.

But the twist in this chapter is the final line. Lao-Tzu seems to take back the nugget of perennial wisdom. What gives? I suspect his concern is not so much the truth of the adage, as our attachment to it. We are mistaken not in embracing suffering as an opportunity for transformation, but in mindlessly repeating slogans from the past to numb us to the suffering in the present. When we fall back on the “wisdom of the ancients,” we insidiously sidestep and emotionally bypass the reality facing us. Lao-Tzu agrees with George Carlin: “Language is by and large a tool for concealing the truth.” No amount of deep-sounding quotes on Instagram, or wise verses from the Daodejing, or magical word-spells can show me how to alchemize the broken into the whole. The only way is return—to silence, to solitude, to the present moment.

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

What Do You Think?