It’s an Up and Down World

Klodt has definitely given me a greater appreciation of the Taoist idea of yin and yang, the constant fluctuation that underlies life. Although I’ve long held the belief that the Golden Mean was the best philosophical basis for life, a belief I subscribed to after discovering it in a college philosophy class that introduced me to Socrates and Aristotle, I didn’t realize then that it was also a fundamental belief of Confucianism and Taoism. Seeing it in terms of Taoism certainly provides more evidence for the wisdom of that belief.

Klodt devotes much of the chapter called “The Harmony of Abundance” to a discussion of the Western attitude toward sex and Nature and a fascinating discussion of the I-Ching that deserves more attention, but the passage that really stood out for me was this one:

At its apex or zenith, yin transforms into yang, and vice versa. Things expand just so far, then they contract. (Keep blowing up a balloon and eventually it pops.) Endless growth or expansion is not possible. In the history of civilizations, as in life itself, we see birth, growth, and expansion, followed by decline, decay, and destruction. In biology, the out-of-control growth of what we call “cancerous cells” rapidly destroys the host, unless the growth is somehow checked. The understanding that things move toward their counterparts can be applied to a variety of circumstances in life. For example, from the perspective of yin/yang philosophy, the idea of perpetual economic growth is incongruent with the natural order of things, where loss follows gain; decrease, increase. Even if we were able to show uninterrupted growth in terms of the abstract measures of economic statistics, we would suffer loss in others ways (as indeed we have). The next chapter will examine the price we have paid in terms of the loss of leisure in modern life. In our collective struggle to end one kind of poverty (material), we have succeeded in creating another (time).

One could only wish our political leaders could see the wisdom in Klodt’s observation. Unfortunately, at times it strikes me that our whole Capitalist society is premised on this idea. “Growth” is seen as the ultimate good, and More is always better than less, and there’s never Enough if advertisers are to be believed.

Klodt shows how our failure to understand this concept of yin and yang also affects the way we view others. If we see our world in terms of opposites, we see ourselves as good and those who oppose us as evil, though experience should have taught us otherwise:

Carl Jung (following Heraclitus) called this phenomena enantiodromia, or “a running contrariwise.” He said, “Every psychological extreme secretly contains its own opposite or stands in some relation to it.” The worst crimes are committed in the name of fighting evil. The hero falls defeated by his own hubris. One (person or country) humbly and diligently strives and ultimately achieves success. Yet soon, pride and laziness set in and, with these, the onset of decline. The I Ching instructs us to consider danger and misfortune when things are going well and to recognize, when events seem to be running against us, that “this too will pass.” We find harmony, not by defeating evil once and for all, but by recognizing the relationship between good and evil and remaining psychologically in the middle, between the Pairs of seeming opposites.

Danger arises when a man feels secure in his position. Destruction threatens when a man seeks to preserve his worldly estate. Confusion develops when a man has put everything in order. Therefore the superior man does not forget danger in his security, nor ruin when he is well established, nor confusion when his affairs are in order. -I CHING

As we can needlessly and fruitlessly battle sex by making enemies out of the polarities in life, so too can we needlessly and fruitlessly battle change by viewing it as something separate from ourselves. Change isn’t happening to us. We are happening in a sea of change. We battle change with the fanciful hope that favorable circumstances will always prevail. We battle change when we resign ourselves to unfavorable conditions for fear that they will never change. The Taoists tell us not to battle change but to surrender to it-not in a sense of resignation but with a spirit of joy and thanksgiving.

It’s hard not to recognize our current leaders who seem to have justified torture, an international crime, in the name of destroying “the axis of evil” in this description. Perhaps more frightening is the knowledge that many opposition leaders and much of our population also bought into these ideas.

Considering human history, I suspect that this “us-versus-them” mentality is genetically coded, hard-wired, as it were, and it only makes matters worse when the culture reinforces those beliefs. Certainly any religion that implies those who have joined a particular church are “God’s Chosen People” fosters this “us versus them” view. But one only has to have taken a high school history class to be reminded that America has too often seen itself in this same light, some even going so far as to suggest that all of history has led to the founding of this great nation.