Chapter 66: Lowdown
“Lakes and rivers are lords of the hundred valleys.
Why? Because they’ll go lower.
So they’re lords of the hundred valleys.
Just so, a wise soul,
Wanting to be above other people,
Talks to them from below,
And to guide them follows them.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Michelle Obama was praised for exhorting us: “When they go low, we go high.”
While this kind of rhetoric feels good, it risks radiating the unique sort of moral self-righteousness that leads the left to electoral defeat.
People’s default settings leaving home and going out in public—at work, in a classroom, on a social media site, etc—are defense and projection of their priors. They are tightly gripping a double-edged sword called “us and them.”
The best thing you can do for them is surprise them. That means laying your own sword—your own priors, your own high and low, your own us and them—at the door, walking in, and letting yourself be slain. When their blow does not meet a counter-blow, they will feel and see the sword in their hands, and that they were swinging at shadows. You will have given them the gift of self-knowledge. You will have laid them low, not by conquering them, but by helping them conquer their own prejudices. “There is nothing that must be treated so gently as a delusion,” Kierkegaard writes, “especially if you wish to dispel it.” Only when we lay low together—when we rest as one on the plain of not knowing—can we hope to build and humbly climb higher.
A wiser, more canny, more yin-ish approach is suggested by Michelle’s husband: “leading from behind.” It means playing the fool. And being the fool; a fool who merely plays at being a fool is a false fool, for the true fool is one for whom playing is not an act, but a way of being. No one has greater faith than the fool. “Where belief clings,” Alan Watts reminds us, “faith lets go.”
The troll is, in truth, a frightened child who wants to play; he is testing you. Will you return the disfavor, and carry on past the bridge, regarding it as a fly-over state? Or will you stop, climb down from your high ground, and see what things are like under the bridge? When they go low, go lower; receive their low for what it is —their own high. Only then will you be of a help that is not concealed hubris.
A king or queen who is a fool in disguise: the most powerful leader.
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