The Election, Lao Tzu, a Cup of Water
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Americans have voted for a politics of fear, anger, and hatred, and those of us who oppose this politics are now trying to figure out how we can oppose it usefully. I want to defend my country, my republic. In the atmosphere of fear, anger, and hatred, opposition too easily becomes division, fixed enmity. I’m looking for a place to stand, or a way to go, where the behavior of those I oppose will not control my behavior.
Americans are given to naming enemies and declaring righteous war against them. Indians are the enemy, socialism is the enemy, cancer is the enemy, Jews are the enemy, Muslims are the enemy, sugar is the enemy. We don’t support education, we declare a war on illiteracy. We make war on drugs, war on Viet Nam, war on Iraq, war on obesity, war on terror, war on poverty. We see death, the terms on which we have life, as an enemy that must be defeated at all costs.
Defeat for the enemy, victory for us, aggression as the means to that end: this obsessive metaphor is used even by those who know that aggressive war offers no solution, and has no end but desolation.
The election of 2016 was one of the battles of the American Civil War. The Trump voters knew it, if we didn’t, and they won it. Their victory helps me see where my own thinking has been at fault.
I will try never to use the metaphor of war where it doesn’t belong, because I think it has come to shape our thinking and dominate our minds so that we tend to see the destructive force of aggression as the only way to meet any challenge. I want to find a better way.
My song for many years was We Shall Overcome. I will always love that song, what it says and the people who have sung it, with whom I marched singing. But I can’t march now, and I can’t sing it any longer.
My song is Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.
Though we’ve had some great scholars of peace, such as Martin Luther King, studying it is something Americans have done very little of.
The way of the warrior admits no positive alternatives to fighting, only negatives — inertia, passivity, surrender. Talk of “waging peace” is mere glibness, you can’t be aggressively peaceful. Reducing positive action to fighting against or fighting for, we have not looked at the possibility of other forms of action.
Like the people who marched to Selma, the people who are standing their ground at Standing Rock study, learn, and teach us the hard lessons of peace. They are not making war. They are resolutely non-violent. They are seeking a way out of the traps of anger, hatred, enmity. They are actively trying to get free, to be free, and by their freedom, free others as well.
Studying peace means in the first place unlearning the vocabulary of war, and that’s very difficult indeed. Isn’t it right to fight against injustice? Isn’t that what Selma and Standing Rock are — brave battles for justice?
I think not. Brave yes; battles no. Refusing to engage an aggressor on his terms, standing ground, holding firm, is not aggression — though the aggressive opponent will always declare that it is. Refusing to meet violence with violence is a powerful, positive act.
But that is paradoxical. It’s hard to see how not doing something can be more positive than doing something. When all the words we have to use are negative — inaction, nonviolence, refusal, resistance, evasion — it’s hard to see and keep in mind that the outcome of these so-called negatives is positive, while the outcome of the apparently positive act of making war is negative.
We confuse self-defense, the reaction to aggression, with aggression itself. Self-defense is a necessary and morally defensible reaction.
But defending a cause without fighting, without attacking, without aggression, is not a reaction at all. It is an action. It is an expression of power. It takes control.
Reaction is controlled by the power it reacts against. The people who at present claim to be conservatives aren’t conservatives at all, they are radical reactionaries. The position of the reactionary is not that of the agent, but that of the victim. The reactionary tends always toward paranoia, seeing himself as the obsessive object of vast malevolent forces and entities, fearing enemies everywhere, in anyone he doesn’t understand and can’t control, in every foreigner, in his own government.
Many contemporary Republicans have permanently assumed the position of victim, which is why their party has no positive agenda, and why they whine so much.
The choice to act, rather than react, breaks the paralysis of fear and the vicious circle of aggression, frees us go forward, onward.
We have glamorized the way of the warrior for millennia. We have identified it as the supreme test and example of courage, strength, duty, generosity, and manhood. If I turn from the way of the warrior, where am I to seek those qualities? What way have I to go?
Lao Tzu says: the way of water.
The weakest, most yielding thing in the world, as he calls it, water chooses the lowest path, not the high road. It gives way to anything harder than itself, offers no resistance, flows around obstacles, accepts whatever comes to it, lets itself be used and divided and defiled, yet continues to be itself and to go always in the direction it must go. The tides of the oceans obey the moon while the great currents of the open sea keep on their ways beneath. Water deeply at rest is yet always in motion; the stillest lake is constantly, invisibly transformed into vapor, rising in the air. A river can be dammed and diverted, yet its water is incompressible: it will not go where there is not room for it. A river can be so drained for human uses that it never reaches the sea, yet in all those bypaths and usages its water remains itself and pursues its course, flowing down and on, above ground or underground, breathing itself out into the air in evaporation, rising in mist, fog, cloud, returning to earth as rain, refilling the sea. Water doesn’t have only one way. It has infinite ways, it takes whatever way it can, it is utterly opportunistic, and all life on earth depends on this passive, yielding, uncertain, adaptable, changeable element.
The death way or the life way? The high road of the warrior, or the river road?
I know what I want. I want to live with courage, with compassion, in patience, in peace.
The way of the warrior fully admits only the first of these, and wholly denies the last.
The way of the water admits them all.
The flow of a river is a model for me of courage that can keep me going — carry me through the bad places, the bad times. A courage that is compliant by choice and uses force only when compelled, always seeking the best way, the easiest way, but if not finding any easy way still, always, going on.
The cup of water that gives itself to thirst is a model for me of the compassion that gives itself freely. Water is generous, tolerant, does not hold itself apart, lets itself be used by any need. Water goes, as Lao Tzu says, to the lowest places, vile places, accepts contamination, accepts foulness, and yet comes through again always as itself, pure, cleansed, and cleansing.
Running water and the sea are models for me of patience: their easy, steady obedience to necessity, to the pull of the moon in the sea-tides and the pull of the earth always downward; the immense power of that obedience.
I have no model for peace, only glimpses of it, metaphors for it, similes to what I cannot fully grasp and hold. Among them: a bowl of clear water. A boat drifting on a slow river. A lake among hills. The vast depths of the sea. A drop of water at the tip of a leaf. The sound of rain. The sound of a fountain. The bright dance of the water-spray from a garden hose, the scent of wet earth.
The river that runs in the valley
makes the valley that holds it.
This is the doorway:
the valley of the river.
What wears away the hard stone,
the high mountain?
The wind. The dust on the wind.
The rain. The rain on the wind.
What wears the hardness of hate away?
Courage, compassion, patience
holding to their way:
the path to the doorway.
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