“By doing things badly we make ourselves less real.” — Thomas Merton, The New Man
One of the joys of teaching is that you have an excuse to learn full-time. Given the fact that humans, even under the worst of circumstances, are compulsive learners, it’s great that some of us actually get paid to do it. Having just finished a week of diving deep into the ethics of genetic engineering, the delights and mysteries of the Tao Te Ching, and the value and meaning of good work—all of this with three different groups of thoughtful adult students—I am realizing the deepening satisfaction of emergent ideas. These are ideas which are a long time coming and which are formed through the confluence of different streams of thought.
One of the ways I learn is to write my way through a problem, turning with it this way and that, until I find some place to stand if only for a moment. That’s the pleasure in writing this blog—to see what I think and to gain some clarity in the process. These are always snapshots of a process, a momentary glimpse of a mind in pursuit of . . . something. At times my train of thought is no more than a couple of boxcars on a siding; the fun is in seeing if the engine in the far distance, visible only as a plume of drifting smoke, will shunt through the right switches to arrive and connect.
So all week I’ve had the sense of an idea just under the surface. I am remembering David Crosby’s song: “Just beneath the surface of the mud/There’s more mud here/Surprise!”
It takes the shape of trying to understand—and articulate in a class on world religions—what Lao Tze is saying in his incomparable 81 passages of wisdom in the Tao Te Ching. He begins with a warning: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” and follows up later with, “Those who speak don’t know and those who know don’t speak,” a joke of sly proportions considering that he’s been going on about this page after page. It is, in the words of one commentator on the Tao, like “trying to unscrew the inscrutable.”
But later in the week, as a group of us discuss readings on work and leisure in a class on Humanity and Culture, other passages sparkle in their directness:
“When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”
“Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”
“Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?”
Taoism holds as a central virtue the notion of wu-wei, sometimes explained as ‘actionless action.’ It’s about working with natural elements in the world instead of forcing one’s way through life. In an aggressive and competitive culture like ours these profoundly simple ideas may sound naive at best and subversive at their heart. But it is often the case that when the needle on the gauge bends against the extreme there arises an alternative. Thus, when we long to do good work and to enjoy it, to speak and to be understood, to receive without fear, we may arrive at the desire for integrity.
I’ve been struggling to come up with a word that surges up from the depths, parts the waters cleanly, and glints in the sunlight before dropping back. All week the word has been honesty, though I’ve resisted its popular distortion as cruelty disguised as truth—jus’ keeping it real. . . But it’s a brave word and it stands closer to that shadowy wisp of meaning I’m trying to grasp than any other for now.
I’m reminded of an enigmatic phrase of A. N. Whitehead, ‘Religion is what we do with our solitariness.’ I’ve been turning that over and over in my head like a rough-edged pebble, trying to smooth it out by constant contact. I don’t know where I found it and I can’t determine the context, but the shape of it looks like honesty—what we truly are when we are truly ourselves, alone before the Divine. In that state we know in our marrow when we are slip sliding away, avoiding the truth, trying to put one over. When it’s just us and God, no one else to impress, what reason do we have to lie? Why not just come clean for once, be courageous enough to laugh at our pretensions to courage, and be still?
Thomas Merton, who had a gift for simplicity of expression, says, “A multitude of badly performed actions and of experiences only half-lived exhausts and depletes our being. By doing things badly we make ourselves less real.” We winch up the tension, speed up the production line, churn out more and more things. “Our malformed conscience can think of nothing better to tell us than to multiply the quantity of our acts, without perfecting their quality. And so we go from bad to worse. . . .”
Let us have the humility to begin again, to do our work well for the beauty of it, for what we might learn in the doing. Teasing out these strands of thoughts, looking around us and finding a way to bind them gently together, we can at last use them thankfully and well.
“Behold the world fresh—as it is, on its own terms—through the eyes of a beginner,” urges Epictetus. “There is no such thing as conclusive, once-and-for-all knowledge. . . . Spirited curiosity is an emblem of the flourishing life.”
And so to work . . . .