Saturday, September 16, 2006

Nature is not humane; we should be like nature

I was reading an interview with Ursula K. LeGuin about her new rendition of the Tao Te Ching. Her version does more to stress feminine power. During the interview, LeGuin refers to a passage where Lao Tzu says we should be like nature, although nature isn't humane. That means Lao Tzu is saying self-sacrifice is not a good thing, but, in LeGuin's words, a "lousy thing."

I was intrigued by this because I've always felt drawn to self-sacrifice. It's often where I derive meaning for myself. LeGuin does help me to see self-sacrifice in a new light; well, perhaps not new, because I have thought about the nature of sacrifice before and wondered about its dark side. Says LeGuin:

Nature is definitely not humane. And Lao Tzu says we should be like nature. We should not be humane, either, in the sense that we should not sacrifice ourselves for others. Now that's going to be very hard for Christian readers to accept, because they're taught that self-sacrifice is a good thing. Lao Tzu says it's a lousy thing. This is perhaps the most radical thing he says to a Western ear. Don't buy into self-sacrifice. Any more than you would ask somebody to sacrifice themselves for you. There's a sort of reciprocity--that's the only way I can understand it.

I've been thinking about this since Mother Teresa's recent death. I have never been comfortable with her or with any extreme altruism. It makes me feel inferior, like I ought to be like that, but I'm not. And if I tried to be, it would be the most horrible hypocrisy. But why, what is it that I'm uncomfortable with? And I think maybe Lao Tzu gives me a little handle on that. In a sense, this kind of self-sacrifice occurs only in a society that is so sick that only somebody going too far can make up for the cruelty of the society.

This is startling to me. I've just been reading Karen Armstrong, who goes through each religion and shows how sacrifice became a defining feature. If LeGuin is right, then Lao Tzu's perception of religion is different from the others. It rests on reciprocity, not sacrifice.

Nature is beautiful and sometimes entertaining, but it isn't humane. This, it seems to me, is a truth that's become lost to us. Because we don't live with nature anymore, we've forgotten it's not a place of sacrifice, forgiveness, or grace. The recent deaths of Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man) and Steve Irwin (Crocodile Man) illustrate this. Both men have been criticized and blamed for their own deaths. Each man loved nature and sought to preserve it, but in also making it a form of sport and entertainment, they forgot reciprocity. Animals ought to be respected according to their natures, not turned into playthings or teddy bears. Both men forgot how we're connected to things. I believe we all suffer from the same blindness.

I recall an experience I had with the editors of The Sun magazine. They'd accepted a story of mine for publication and the story was going through the editing phase. I can't remember how I'd originally worded the sentence, but it was about give and take, getting something and giving something in return. It was about someone giving a gift on their own birthday, instead of just sitting back and receiving. The editors suggested the word "reciprocity." Looking at the word inserted into my own sentence by the editors, I rather gasped. What a beautiful word. That one word changed a simple idea into something clearly defined, and sacred.

But it isn't until right now, this moment, that I begin to think about what reciprocity means and how this concept might guide my life and my writing.

What if I didn't think of writing as an obligation or as a sacrifice I make by locking myself in a silent room for many hours. What if it is an act of reciprocity? Of giving back, of attempting to reveal some vision or insight I have been given?



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Northwest Ohio, United States
"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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Fave Painting: Eden

Fave Painting:  Eden

Fave Painting: The Three Ages of Man and Death

Fave Painting:  The Three Ages of Man and Death
by Albrecht Dürer

From the First Chapter

The Secret of Hurricanes : That article in the Waterville Scout said it was Shake- spearean, all that fatalism that guides the Kennedys' lives. The likelihood of untimely death. Recently, another one died in his prime, John-John in an airplane. Not long before that, Bobby's boy. While playing football at high speeds on snow skis. Those Kennedys take some crazy chances. I prefer my own easy ways. Which isn't to say my life hasn't been Shake-spearean. By the time I was sixteen, my life was like the darkened stage at the end of Hamlet or Macbeth. All littered with corpses and treachery.

My Original Artwork: Triptych

My Original Artwork:  Triptych



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