(An 11 minute read)
Yesterday afternoon was bright and crisp. The snow from a couple days before had melted, leaving the grasses verdant, albeit destroying the pink crab apple blossoms. I wondered if their seeds had made it through the cold.
Late in the afternoon, one of my next door neighbors walked past my window, carrying his tiniest child in a car seat. The little one was kicking joyfully — apparently at the sunlight on his legs, perhaps attempting to dislodge it.
A few moments later, the woman appeared, and then the toddler. The man and the woman walked purposely towards their car. The toddler had other ideas, though. Every three to five feet he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of something interesting! Green shoots! Dog poop! More shoots!
Suddenly, his parents were calling to him, demanding he hurry up. Green shoots forgotten, he ran towards them, his legs almost a blur trying to keep up with his head, which — in the manner of a toddler — was improbably far in front of his body.
Some years ago, I was introduced to internet chat rooms by a computer savvy friend. “Here, I have something to show you, Paul.” Mike said, turning towards his desktop computer. A click or two, and suddenly the room was engulfed by the shrieking death throes of the Loch Ness monster.
“Paul? Paul, you can come out of the closet.”
“Is it gone?”
“It’s only my modem, Paul. I’m dialing up the internet.”
“You’re dialing up who?”
“Paul, get the hell out of my closet right now!”
Later that same evening… “Look, Paul! She’s come online! It’s Jolene!”
“Jolene? Do you mean, ‘PussyVentura’?”
“Yes, that’s her username.”
“I’ll explain later. ”
Several minutes later… “What I need from you right now is a poem. Write a poem to her, so I can impress her with it, Paul.”
“I don’t know, Mike, the last time you got romantic about some…”.
“A poem, Paul, that’s all I’m asking for. I’m certainly not asking for a recap of my romantic history!”
“But, Mike, a Russian bride?”
Five minutes later… “Where’s my poem, Paul?”
“I’m still working on it, Mike”
“I need it now! She said she was logging off, so I told her to wait. Give me what you’ve got!”
“Um…try typing this: Your beauty cleanses me of sorrow, my Jolene.”
“Your beauty cleanses me of sorrow, my Jolene.”
“It gives me courage to live for tomorrow, my Jolene.”
“It gives me courage to live for tomorrow, my Jolene. Oh, Paul, this is going to be good, I can tell. See? You can do it! What’s next?”
“You even make me want to face”
“You even make me want to face”
“With grace…That’s pretty good, Paul, I like that. What’s next? Quick! What’s next?”
“Of your morning breath, my Jolene.”
“Of your mornin… Are you kidding me, Paul? Are you kidding me!”
“It’s all I got, Mike.”
I’ve heard that in placental mammals, the number of nipples divided by two strongly correlates with average litter size. A species, like ours, with two nipples typically has one offspring per litter. But a species that has six nipples will on average have three offspring per litter.
Of course, it all gets complicated when you realize that some species have no fixed number of nipples. Pigs, for instance, range from 6 to 32 nipples, depending on the breed.
My second wife, Tomoko, was educated in an elite Japanese school that required her to learn how to read and write classical Chinese, much as some elite Western schools require Latin of their students. She also had a large set of books — each one beautifully bound, printed, and separately encased — that contained the works in Chinese of nearly a hundred ancient authors. Most of them never published in English.
At times, she and I were in the habit of dining out, and I coaxed her into regularly bringing along a volume or two of her set so that she could translate them for me after we’d finished our meals. One of my favorite authors was Kan Chu (circa 600 – 550 B.C.), who — in Tomoko’s translation — once said this, “Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human. When people have those things, it will be easier to govern them.”
To put that in context, almost all ancient Chinese wisdom literature is nominally addressed to the rulers, and couched in terms of how to govern the people, regardless of whether it has much to do with governing or not. When you think about it, that made a lot of sense since it was the ruling class for the most part that could read and write. So Kan Chu was probably not being cynical in urging his audience to make sure the people had “clothes, food, and shelter” in order to more easily govern them.
More likely, I think, he was genuinely concerned with the people’s welfare. But whatever the case, his advice to take care of necessities before teaching people the finer things in life impresses me as good advice even to this day. Especially today, when “clothes, food, and shelter” are once again at risk for larger and larger numbers of people.
I don’t know about modern Chinese, but classical Chinese had about twenty words for “no”, not one of which meant “absolutely no”. The closest you could get to an absolute no — that is, the closest you could get to the Western sense of “no” — was a word that meant, “almost always no”.
This was completely in keeping with the ancient Chinese understanding of yin and yang, the two principles which are the immediate manifestations of the Tao in the world.
Yin and yang are not opposites in the Western sense of “yes and no”, “feminine and masculine”, or “good and evil”. Yin, sometimes called “the feminine principle”, is an aspect of yang, sometimes called “the masculine principle”. Yang, in turn, is an aspect of yin.
So far as I’ve been able to find out, there is no truly dichotomous thinking in ancient Chinese wisdom literature. Instead, even the Chinese equivalent of polar opposites reveal an underlying unity. The most common Western expression that I know of to the Chinese way of thinking is to speak of apparent opposites as “really being two sides of the same coin”.
One day in the 1960s, when Tomoko was about seven years old, her school was called to an unscheduled assembly. There, the principal announced that the students were being dismissed for the day, and that they were to immediately go home. No one should stop to play, loiter, or visit with friends. Straight home and no detours! Your parents have been called. They are expecting you!
Strange as it might sound today, even very young schoolchildren in the 60s typically walked to and from school — if the distance wasn’t far — and even in big cities like Tokyo. But that’s a digression for the benefit of my younger readers, who might never have heard of such a thing!
When Tomoko reached her home, her grandmother was already watching the television to see what had happened. Soon, the news reports started coming in. The police around the country were raiding the Yakuza dens! They were, the reporters said, “attempting to peacefully arrest the bosses, but unfortunately, often finding themselves engaged in gun battles. Several bosses are reported killed with no injuries so far on the police side.”
I don’t know when Tomoko learned the full story of that day’s events but here is what she told me many years later. The Japanese mafia, or Yakuza, had grown out of control. The bosses no longer knew their proper place. Consequently, something had to be done. The schools in major cities across the country were closed in case the situation got out of hand. Then the police, armed with grenades and assault rifles, raided numerous “dens” and slaughtered without warning at least 100 ranking Yakuza and many times that of lower ranking members.
“Did they get them all”, I asked.
Naturally, Tomoko explained, they didn’t even try to kill all of them. That would have left a void in society that some other group would then have to fill, upsetting the nation’s harmony. Instead, the goal was to knock them down to where they were no longer a threat to the social order, and could instead provide their services to the community in peace.
I think it is sometimes hard for Westerners to understand the Eastern concept of opposites. “Good and Evil” belong to the West, “Yin and Yang” (or “In and Yo”, in Japanese) belong to the East. Our good and evil is dichotomous, where the one is, the other is not. But yin and yang are not dichotomous. Where the one is, the other is also.
Because yin and yang are the way of opposites in the East, so often the goal is not to eliminate or annihilate one (or the other), but rather to insure that they remain in harmony or balance with each other. When the Yakuza got out of balance, when it was no longer in harmonious relationship with the rest of society, it became necessary — in the Japanese way of seeing things — to put it back in its proper place. No more, no less.
In the West, no politician could ever get elected promising to conscientiously stop short of annihilating the mafia, the gangs, the cartels. That would be the equivalent of professing to be soft on evil.
Every real thought on every real subject knocks the wind out of somebody or other. — Oliver Wendell Holmes.
It seems most of us at one time or another confuse the map with the terrain when we believe our thoughts about ourselves are ourselves.
That’s to say, the map is our thoughts about ourselves. The terrain is who we are. Yet, so often we think what we think about ourselves is who we are.
I can think of myself any number of ways that are not likely to be borne out by my experience of myself. I can believe all sorts of things about myself that simple observation will disprove.
It seems to me that if one wishes to know who they are, the best place to start is with the non-judgmental observation of oneself in relationship to other things, very much including people. It is key that the observation be as dispassionate, as non-judgmental as possible. This can be exceedingly difficult to do because all your life you have been taught to praise or condemn yourself according to whether or not you measured up to some ideal, some person, some standard.
Yet, without non-judgmental observation, you will not come to know yourself as deeply as possible. Judgments, although useful in many circumstances, are worse than useless here. They are worse than neutral. They actually distort who you really are. To look at yourself through judgmental eyes is like looking at your image in a fun house mirror.
Moreover, you should look at yourself in relationship to things. You should not simply introspect because doing so is quite likely to lead you into mistaking the map for the terrain, into mistaking your idea of yourself for yourself. To really understand yourself you need a reality-check, and observing yourself in relationship can provide that reality-check.
Last, it can help immensely to create a journal in which you write down your observations on a daily basis, then review your journal regularly. After a few weeks or months, if you do not discover many new and significant things about yourself, you can sue my lawyer. By the way, I hereby grant all my powers of attorney to Donald Trump.
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” — Kong Qui (Confucius). I wonder now what my neighbor, the toddler, thinks of dog poop. Probably thinks it’s beautiful. At his age, I believe, most of us do. Sometimes the only thing that separates a child from a sage is age.