BLOG— Refusing to bend
- Published: September 15, 2015
Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell
One difference between a living thing and a dead one is suppleness. Living things have it, dead things don’t. I’m reminded of this when I look at summer’s weeds. Yellow and brown, they’ve gone rigid, many of them: they have one story now, one shape. What happened to all the pliant green? The flower stalks that leaned out of the hostas in our back yard — really leaned, like neighbors talking to neighbors from open windows — are frozen into claws. They’re eye-catching, but a little creepy.
Suppleness, or its lack, is on my mind, and not just because the world is experiencing its annual arteriosclerosis. Change, any change, triggers in me a sort of panic. And what does a panicked creature do but freeze?
“I guess I’m just not very good with change,” I said to my husband recently. He was kind enough to gravely nod (and not collapse in tears or laughter). How slow, how tentative are my efforts toward self-understanding. I know I state and re-state obvious self-truths as if they were fresh revelations. I know this, but I can’t seem to change.
Years ago, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah (which ends this evening) with an observant Jewish friend. We walked to the river just a block from my apartment, stood on its banks and cast our sins — in the form of bits of bread — upon the water. The bread was old and stale, and moreover torn from the heel of a loaf — the kind as a kid I tossed to ducks. Fishing it from the bottom of its plastic bag didn’t feel much like a sacred act, but once the bread left my fingers, something shifted. The current was swift. The river, as rivers tend to be, was persuasively wet; the bread not only disappeared downstream, but simply disappeared — dissolved. The bread did not fight the change.
Watching it go, I thought, Help me change. I believe I had in mind a set of attributes I wished to swap for a different set of attributes. I don’t believe I realized what I was really wishing for was the capacity to flow like the river, to lose myself inside the flow like the bread.
All wisdom is paradox, I think, and one that applies to the human psyche is this: to change, you must first accept who you are. Not accept as in “grudgingly tolerate,” but accept as in “truly love.” To love anything begins with seeing it clearly — without the overlay of your personal 10-point plan for its upgrade and improvement. The Tao Te Ching says, over and over again in its lovely, kaleidoscopic way, Hey, this world is perfect as it is. That’s a message that makes a lot of well-meaning people mad. The world is manifestly and hugely imperfect! Ridden with ills, injustices, or in the sterner, older language — sins. Yes, yes, of course, I imagine Lao Tzu mumbling through his beard. It is also perfect. Figure out what that means.
If you’re struggling to change — yourself, some little corner of your community, anything — you might first ask, who or what is this person or thing or situation I believe to be so in need of change? If you don’t know the answer deeply, if you don’t feel the pull of curiosity to find out more, you’re not ready, not in a sense qualified, to do the pliant, yes, pliant, work of change. You’re boxing with your mind’s own shadows; you’re refusing to bend with the wind.
This might be my “change problem,” I think, looking at the scattered leaves and filtered light of Sunday evening, the first night of Rosh Hashanah. I’m not so much afraid of change as scared to find out who I really am. I’m stuck on certain notions of myself, perhaps, and they bristle like dead weeds, or living hackles, when other notions try to blow in.
Time to cast away that old bread.