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Lao Tzu

David Cowles

May 24, 2022

Do we live life or does life live us?

"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them…Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like." – attributed to Lao Tzu.

Do we live life or does life live us? Should we let life live us (as Lao Tzu seems to recommend)? Do the events of the world follow one another according to their own inexorable logic? Are we just onlookers? Is life, after all, a 'spectator sport?'

The spirituality common to most cultures warns us against the 'idolatry of the ego.' "We are not the world," after all.

We imagine that we are the air traffic controllers of our own lives, stacking up planes and landing them in a particular order on particular runways. That is not who we are! But neither are we passive passengers, landing safely or not, according to processes beyond our ken or control.

So, if we are neither air traffic controllers nor mere passengers, who the heck are we?

We are pilots!

The plane, its crew, its passengers, its destination, its air speed, and its prescribed route are all givens (ticket sales, flight plans, FAA regulations, etc.); but pilots are nexus (pl) of these givens. We are the ones entrusted with the implementation of the plan, or the ad hoc modification of that plan in case of emergency .

Most often, passengers enjoy a smooth flight, an on-time arrival, and a safe landing. Occasionally, passengers may arrive safely, but only after enduring delays, turbulence, and a bumpy landing. Rarely, but sadly, a plane and its passengers will not arrive at all.

We are both in the world and of the world, but we are not the world. Without the FAA, a flight plan, and willing passengers, there would be no flight; but without the pilot there would be no take-off and no landing.

We are both the subject and the object of everything we do. (As pilots, we are also passengers.) We can (and do) try to alter the course of events, but often it is our own course that is altered by our actions, while the world continues on its merry way. We do not rule the world, but neither does the world rule us; it is "not the boss of me."

The Serenity Prayer, hung on the walls of many American kitchens and recited many times each day (e.g., during meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous), strikes the right balance: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

What are the things we cannot change? For the most part, we are powerless to avoid life's vicissitudes; nor can we alter the fate of things to come. Under the weight of these vicissitudes, we often ask, "Where's God?" But knowing that our fate and the fate of the universe is sealed, we can only say, "Thank God!" Personal, as well as cosmic, salvation is 'in the bank.'

We cannot change the origin or the destination of our journey (point A and point B): we are where we are now, and we will be where we will be then. These are our 'givens' which we cannot change. But we can influence the course of the journey, for ourselves and for all our 'fellow travelers.' We can determine 'the shape of things to come,' if not the things themselves.

We can also change the way we experience our journey. We pilots have been given a take-off time ('now') and a destination ('then'). But we have not been given a flight plan. Once again, we are reminded that 'life does not come with a user's manual.' It is up to us to determine the route we take and the way we experience events along the way.

Jean-Paul Sartre used the term 'facticity' to describe Point A. Facticity is the mis-en-scene of any novel event. Alfred North Whitehead used the phrase, 'actual world' to the same effect. Either way, our starting point is a given.

We use two different phrases to describe our end point; i.e., the fate of things to come. We call the fate of spatiotemporal events "Heat Death" (the annihilation of all that is). We are quite confident that this fate is hardwired and cannot be deflected.

On the other hand, we call the fate of events outside of space and time, i.e., eternal events, the "Kingdom of Heaven." Once again, we believe that this fate is built into the structure of Being itself. Fortunately, we cannot change the character of the Kingdom or alter the fact that it will come. Thank God, because otherwise we would surely mess things up!

Take a letter to Lao Tzu. Neither activism nor quietism is best. The optimum life strategy is 'engagement.' We did not choose to be here (wherever here may be) and we cannot control the warp and woof of events along our way. We can, however, determine our own trajectories; and we can choose how we experience the journey. We can hide from life, or like the 'Prodigal Father,' we can rush to embrace it.

We can also influence the journeys of the entities around us. We can (and will) create new obstacles for them; but we can also "make the rough places plane." How we live and experience life can give options to others.


Image: Laozi by Zhang Lu; Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

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