When confronted with horrible, senseless crimes like the massacre of innocent children in Connecticut last week, I find myself turning back to the Daoist classics for reflection. It is not that I find answers in the Daodejing and Zhuangzi. There are no answers, really. Rather, the old books simply remind us of certain enduring truths that circulate around the terrible things that can happen among humans.
The first thing to note, however, is the overwhelming sorrow that descends upon all of us, parents in particular, when confronted with this horrific scene. My heart aches for the families caught up in this maelstrom. I hope they will find a way to absorb and live beyond the grief and loss they now experience.
The needless and violent death of any individual is appalling, of course. But when children are the victims, boys and girls only six or seven years old, the outrage is even more pointed. Their innocence shocks the conscience. Their lives are still so new, so wonderfully open and bright, that we intuitively feel they should be spared the depredations of the adult world. We want to shield them, to give them a chance to grow and learn. And now, for these twenty in Newtown, all that has been shot down. An excerpt from passage 55 of the Daodejing (Lynn translation) gets at the tragedy here:
One who has profoundly internalized virtue is comparable to the infant. Wasps, scorpions, adders, and vipers do not sting or bite him. Fierce animals do not attack him. Birds of prey do not seize him.
Wang Bi, a third century commentator, expands upon this passage:
The infant is free from craving or desire and so commits no offense against the myriad things. As a result, no poisonous creature commits offense against him. It is because one who has profoundly internalized virtue does not commit offense against others that others do not try to make him lose his wholeness.
The infant, in other words, in her freedom from desires and wants beyond the most elemental, is a model for us all. Much of the pain and suffering of human life, the adders and vipers that bite us, emerge from adult avidity: status, money, power. Young children have not yet learned to want such things. And Daoism holds them up as an ideal, a hint for how adults might make their own lives better.
It is especially cruel, then, when adults violently harm the children who should be resistant to our harms.
Sadly, children come to unnatural deaths all too often, all around the world. It is a consistent and extensive failure of humanity. In the US, however, this failing takes a peculiar form: the prevalence of gun violence. It is a baleful and lethal historical legacy. We, as a society, venerate guns, we seem to worship them, as Gary Wills suggests:
The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).
Daoism immediately sees the terrible folly here: we have taken an unnecessary and inanimate thing and invested it with near magical qualities. And from that has flowed innumerable harms and sorrows. Passage 31 of the Daodejing (Ivanhoe and Van Norden trans.) opens:
Fine weapons are inauspicious instruments; all creatures find them repulsive. And so one who has the Way does not rely upon them.
We don't need guns. They simply make the persistant failures of humanity ever more violent and deadly. They are central to the tragedy of Newtown. And until we learn the lesson of their futility we will unnecessarily repeat the offense of harming and killing those who should be resistant to our harms.