28 is a happy number. (Starting with any positive integer, replace the number by the sum of the squares of its digits, and repeat the process until the number equals 1 (where it will stay), or it loops endlessly in a cycle which does not include 1. Those numbers for which this process ends in 1 are happy numbers.)
It’s been a while, but this morning, having been woken by heartburn brought about through yesterday’s caffeine-overdose, I return to ponder the mysteries of Mr Tzu’s ramblings. Today’s chapter begins
Know the strength of man,
But keep a woman’s care!
I feel ill.
In Chapter 28, Lao stresses that we are a bag of contradictions and these things make us whole. This is definitely worth holding onto. Have you ever been in one of those discussions where people hold you to account for something you have done by saying, “HAH! And you call yourself a [insert name of ideology that you subscribe to]? You’re just a fecking hyp-o-crite!” Very often, the natural reaction appears to be some kind of metaphysical contortionism as one explains how one can still believe in X whilst frequently engaging in Y. LT would probably just have responded to these accusations with, “You’ve got a point there.”
So what are the opposites that Dr Lao recommends we nurture? Keep the feminine AND the masculine, the white AND the black, honour AND humility. I have yet to be convinced that there really is such a thing as the feminine or the masculine, but I can see what the old boy was getting at. And why, pray tell, should we nurture our own inconsistencies? Because, says the Wizened Wiseguy, by doing so we go back to the natural way which is the best way.
If we keep both the testosterone (the unthinking person’s Toblerone) and the oestrogen, LT assures us that we will “become as a little child once more.”
If we keep both white and black, LT promises us that we will “return to the infinite.”
If we are both proud and humble, we may manage to “return to the state of the uncarved block.” It really doesn’t get much better than this.
Let’s go in a bit deeper. Lao uses the verbs “know” and “keep” to tell us what to do with our contradictions. We should “know” our masculine qualities, the white, and honour. We should, however, “keep” the feminine, the black and humility. Before I consider what this means, I daresay that I am going to have to put my neck on the block and try and get a working definition of what is feminine. I am going to suggest that the feminine contains within it another very potent contradiction: whilst being the more inconsequential of the genders (not imho, but in many social practices), it is the genesis of the human race. This, perhaps, is what Lao is telling us: take a back seat and so give life to all. Which runs the risk, were this blog ever to be translated, of being misinterpreted and becoming, “Get in the back seat and let’s make babies.”
The white V the black. In my culture, the white is purity and innocence and the black is depression and death. We should know the white, but keep the black. Hmmm. Could Lao have been talking about the boards we write on in the classroom? “I’ve heard of these interactive whiteboards, but I cling with a passion to my chalk and blackboards.” Possibly. I like to think that Lao is warning us to stay away from purity and piousness. More committed readers may remember his previous exhortation to “Give up sainthood.” Instead, accept that the world is not a great place to be. It can be dark and frightening, like the night. But the night is also when we get the chance to dream. Ay. There’s the rub. The night provides us with both vice and virtue.
Honour V Humility. Another Thing That Makes You Go Hmmm. Bam-budduh-budduh-budduh. “Know” the first, “keep” the second. Time to finally relate these scribblings to the work of a teacher. A teacher can “know honour” when her students are outperforming all the other muggins around, but this is when Lao says that we should “keep humility”. And not any kind of false humility, either. Remember that your students’ achievements are theirs alone. You are not responsible. As I have written elsewhere, the most you can say is, “Well, at least I didn’t balls that up.” This recognition enables you to return to “the state of the uncarved block”, a favourite taoist image.
The state of the uncarved block is actually a very beautiful metaphor and one that I can only dirty, stain and cheapen if I go on too long about it. It is the state of nature before nature is moulded to fit our needs. For the teacher, it is the natural tendency to help and work with a partner in the communication dance before the sharpened chisel of P-P-P whittles you down to some formulaic drudge.
“When the block is carved, it becomes useful.
When the sage uses it, he [sic] becomes the ruler.”
writes the Wrinkled One, apparently having the gall to contradict me from the past. But Lao didn’t really have much time for the useful, remember. He was more interested in the useless – recognising, as he did, that the useful usually served the use of removing us further and further away from the natural state of things. In Feng and English’s translation, Lao uses great comedic timing to follow up the above two lines with a cracking punchline:
Thus, “A great tailor cuts little.”
Having told us how carving up a block renders it useful and gives power to the wise, Lao advises us that the truly great are those who do very little cutting. And the great teachers are those who do very little teaching. A teacher should not be measured by her success, but by her students’ learning. If the teacher nurtures the learning, much as a mother might nurture a child; if a teacher resists to shine a bright white light onto the black mysteries of language acquisition and just lets things take their course; if the teacher can be successful and yet realise that she had nothing to do with it; if the teacher can just stop bloody interfering, then she will be doing as great a job as it is possible for a teacher to do.
Incidentally, the Chinese character for the Uncarved Block is pronounced P’u. And one of the great Taoists is also called Pooh. Winnie the Pooh has been used with great success by Benjamin Hoff to exemplify taoism. If I haven’t already, allow me to recommend the masterpiece that is The Tao of Pooh.