Hurricane Irene blew through my town on Sunday. Actually, by the time it got here, over 100 miles from the coast, it had been down-graded to a tropical storm. But it's impact was powerful here. Local rivers flooded, washing out roads and causing millions of dollars in damage. Worst, for my family: my in-laws were flooded out of their little home. At this point it looks like it will be a complete loss; valuables will be salvaged but they will not be able to return to live there. We are now absorbed in the task of finding them new arrangements...
As I have pondered the disaster, a passage from the Daodejing has come to the fore:
Keeping words spare: occurrence appearing of itself.
Wild winds never last all morning and fierce winds never last all day. Who conjures such things if not heaven and earth, and if heaven and earth can't make things last, why should we humans try?
That's why masters devote themselves to Way. To master Way is to become Way, to master gain is to become gain, to master loss is to become loss. And whatever becomes Way, Way welcomes joyfully, whatever becomes gain, gain welcomes joyfully, whatever becomes loss, loss welcomes joyfully.
If you don't stand sincere by your words how sincere can the people be? (23)
The above is David Hinton's translation. I mention that here because as I consult other translations, I notice some variation. The basic ideas are the same, but some of the translation choices are different.
For example, in the first and last lines, the Hinton mentions "words" and "sincerity." Generally, I see this framing as drawing a parallel between the impermanence of wind and rain to the instability of language and any sense of sincerity we may draw from the use of language. Hinton translates "xin" 信 - as "standing by your words," which I have always liked, since the character is made up of a "person" 人, next to "words" 言. He thus puts forth "sincere" as a key notion here; while other translations (Ivanhoe and Van Norden; Lynn) use "trust" for xin. I don't see the difference as being that great, and Hinton's approach allows us to link the last and the first lines in their references to "words." In any event, that is just the first idea in this multifaceted passage.
More important than the implicit critique of language is the observation of impermanence. Terrible storms come and go. They are beyond our control in all ways and, as such, they are a reminder of just how much is beyond human control. In my town, and in my family, we are living that reality right now. All we could do was watch as the storm rode in and the water rose. We could not know what the full effect would be, we still don't know. We can only follow where Way leads.
And that brings us to another important aspect of the passage, a kind of "you get out of life what you put into it" message. If we interpret and experience unexpected circumstances as "gain," we will live "gain;" but if we interpret and experience those same circumstances as "loss," we will live loss. There is a kind of agency here. People are not just mindless automatons in the vastness of Way. We have will and interpretive capacities. And if we allow that will and those interpretive capacities to get caught up in transient worldly concerns, we will experience Way negatively. This is how Wang Bi, a Han dynasty commentator on the classics, understood this passage (thanks to Richard John Lynn's translation, which includes Wang's notes on the text):
Failure ... [loss] results from being entangled in having much... If one is entangled in having much, he fails, and this is why the text refers to "failure." If one practices failure, such a one embodies failure. Thus, the text says that he "becomes one with failure."
In other words, the Dao reacts to one's practices and so responds in kind.
I don't think this would go so far as to permit a kind of human control of Dao. Rather, humans have control, not over Dao, but over their own apprehension of and reaction to Dao. And Dao, then, reacts to our reactions, and on and on and on...
The line that leaps out here, for me now, is: "if one practice failure, such a one embodies failure." Or, as Hinton has it: "to master loss is to become loss."
If facing our troubles I will thus not practice failure, I will not master loss. We have literally lost a home and with that comes a cascading series of other sorts of apparent losses. But we are not simply victims of circumstance. We can choose to experience this as loss or as gain. I choose to become gain...