In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for
attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it. This is because
there is nothing that can take its place.
It is not the water which attacks the hard and strong, it is the little tiny bits of hard and strong suspended in the water which do the job. This agrees with the verse below about not being able to put this into practice. The water is the medium, not the doer. It’s my approach to action, not the action itself which is all important. I’m like a small flake of hard and strong and must remain fluid to overcome.
I see water as a metaphor for space and time. The material world exists within an immaterial reality, and so nothing can take its place—it’s foundational. The foundation must lie submissively quiet and be the bed rock of existance. This is a good model for parents to govern kids, and not lose their cool and squabble.
That the weak overcomes the strong,
And the submissive overcomes the hard,
Everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice.
That the submissive overcomes the hard is like sleep overcoming wakefulness. Trying to put this into practice is like trying to sleep—I just get insomnia. Sleep only comes through letting go. This is the opposite of trying to do something, i.e., put something into practice.
Submissive and weak correlate to emptiness. This reminds me of Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room. Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use. [see ch. 11].
Submissive and passive are the opposite of active. They lie at the heart of acceptance, which is what I fall back on when all my ‘hands on problem solving practices’ fail. And they always do in the end. True, I can solve current problems, but these are always replaced by another problem. Just as all answers are always followed by deeper questions. At the end of the day, or time itself, what remains is the question or the problem.
I’ve always known more than I was able to put into practice. This reminds me of the Christian view that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I notice this even in speech. I’ll say things that I don’t really feel true but, well, are just emotionally satisfying to say at the moment. I know I would be happier if I just gave up this or that, but still I cling on, and only much later am I able to let go. I can know what the mature thing to do is, I’m just not mature enough to do it, yet.
It is almost like we live two lives—there is reality and there is what we pretend it is. We pretty much know reality, but ‘puff up’ to look ‘good’ to others, and we are so busy with this deception that we don’t see others doing the same. This was especially true in my youth and seems to subside some with age. It feels like the closer I get to death, the easier it is to face things as they are.
Therefore the sage says,
One who takes on himself the humiliation of the state,
Is called a ruler worthy of offering sacrifices to the gods of earth and millet;
One who takes on himself the calamity of the state,
Is called a king worthy of dominion over the entire empire.
I take on the humiliation of the state when I let go of my wishful thinking and submit to how things are—reality. This brings on a deep sense of humility through the realization that I’m not in control—nature is. The calamity lies in my sense of futility at ever realizing perfection. Physical reality is a blending of opposites, like perfect and flawed. Inner peace only comes when I accept and conform to this natural rhythm.
The calamity of the state is the disconnect between reality and our ideals. Humanity can’t accept reality in practice, and so is destined to play out an eternal chase after ideals. Taking on the calamity is knowing and accepting this. The more grounded I can be in reality, the less harm I inflict on others, and hence the more worthy of dominion I am. This is somewhat ironic in a democracy, for people will never vote for one who tells it like it is. People want to hear that ideals can be realized.
Paradoxical come from a Greek root which means ‘unbelievable’ or ‘beyond what is thought’. It is very difficult to hold on to a belief in Taoism because any belief has its opposing counterpart. Thus, strong doesn’t lead to ever increasing strength, but eventually evolves forth to weakness. And likewise, weakness revolves back to strength. Nature follows a very straightforward process. Our linear thoughts and emotional expections just have difficulty with it.