Chapter 29 – There Is a Season
Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.
So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;
Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;
Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness;
Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.
Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.
Translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng (1989)
There is a poem in Leonard Cohen’s book, The Energy of Slaves (1972), which is also on the back cover of his Songs of Love and Hate album. It goes like this:
They locked up a man
Who wanted to rule the world.
They locked up the wrong man.
At least one reviewer has said that this language “descend[s] to the sententiousness of a Rod McKuen.” While that judgment seems harsh, it can be supported, especially since both the book and the record jacket provide no context or explanation.
The same words can be heard on the recording of Cohen’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. There, he speaks to the crowd saying, “As for the political situation, they locked up a man who wanted to rule the world. The fools, they locked up the wrong man.” After some applause from his listeners, Cohen continues: “A man who eats meat wants to get his teeth into something. A man who does not eat meat wants to get his teeth into something else.” Then, after a pause, “If these thoughts interest you for even a moment, you are lost.”
So that gives some context. It may not pull it much above Rod McKuen’s level, especially considering the words were spoken at about 3:00 a.m. to a crowd that had been up all night, had just experienced Jimi Hendrix and was filtering everything it heard through a haze of psychedelic chemicals. Still, considering the words in this context brings them closer to what Lao Tzu is saying in this chapter. He tells us that if we want to rule or change the world, we are lost; we will ruin the world and lose it. We must live as a part of the natural way, and not fight against it.
Another quotation I would like to share is a familiar one from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven;
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
That scripture was read at my father’s funeral after his passing on the day before Thanksgiving in 2010. My wife’s best friend lost her husband on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. This year, within a very few days of Thanksgiving a longtime friend of our family succumbed to a cancer; the father of my wife’s sister-in-law suffered a fatal heart attack; an old friend from my school days lost a very dear uncle; and the whole world mourned the passing of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
The cycles of time, the cycles of nature, the cycles of light and dark – all of these seemingly come crashing down far too often as the Winter Solstice approaches. The weight of the universe is showing us that we need to pause and truly give thanks, despite the media trying to work us into a shopping frenzy. It has been three years now, and (especially through the holidays) I still miss my father – and my mother and my brother and some good friends. I miss them, but I am most thankful for the time I was able to spend with each.
Those losses and those feelings are a part of nature. They are part of the Way, of the Tao. They are, Lao Tzu tells us, a sacred part of the universe. “Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses and complacency.”
Nevertheless, I think the sage sometimes sheds a silent tear just like the rest of us.