Given my habits, I decided that what would comfort me most would be gaining greater conceptual clarity and coherence. So, with pen and a tablet and notes, I went off to the orchard hoping to create order out of all the ideas floating around in my mind. Sitting on the bench, looking out across the valley along that diagonal line that gives an especially lovely sense of the morphology of the land, I began by drawing diagrams to help me get a sense of how the various themes interrelated.
Itâ€™s long been my general impression that â€œeverything is connected with everything else.â€ Nonetheless, some connections are more vital than others, and it has often seemed to me that the power of a system of thought depends on how well its creator can judge which among the connections are most central to the anatomy of the subject at hand.
As my efforts to draw the anatomy of the unfolding question proceeded, the news was both good and bad. On the good side, I had no trouble coming up with lots of interrelationships among my themes. On the not so good side, my sense of overwhelm, far from being ameliorated, was kicked up into a higher stage, like some electron the physicists might talk about. I was feeling like a highly unstable ion, and was not enjoying my valence.
Now, this should not have been surprising. Itâ€™s always been my experience that far and away the most difficult stage in writing a book is the process of finding the right organizing structure. So why should this occasion be any different? But just when I was feeling most uncomfortable with the strain of trying to find a way to organize my thoughts about unfolding, a line from my reading notes caught my eye and compounded my stress. It was from Csikszentmihalyiâ€™s book Creativity, and it precipitated a mini-crisis in my relationship not only to this particular project, but to my whole sense of myself as a creator.
In this passage, Csikszentmihalyi describes the â€œflowâ€ state of creative people as â€œan almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.â€
It was the word â€œeffortlessâ€ that struck me. Whopp.
Effortless? If thatâ€™s what the creative process is supposed to be like, what does that say about me, I wondered? My hour and a half there on the bench had felt like heavy labor â€“and still the baby was on the wrong side of my mental cervix. Was my frame of mind somehow wholly wrong. Was I straining to produce a creation that, everything in me were in proper alignment, would just flow forth in a blessedly effortless fashion? Should my experience be like the old TM refrain, â€œIt is easy, it is goodâ€?
I felt pretty bummed out about this, and I stewed over it for a while, looking back over my whole creative life. At times, I imagined I could see what Csikszentmihalyi might be talking about. Over the years, Iâ€™ve spent a great many hours enthralled by the sheer flow of things through me. But then Iâ€™d remember that when I arose, after spending an afternoon in this flowingly creative state, the state of my energy would tell me unambiguously that Iâ€™d expended a great deal, that it had been very far from effortless.
Now I was confronting again a paradox that Iâ€™d noted a while back, albeit in a less threatening form. As I worked on a book that at least began with the impulse to celebrate the unfolding, my process of creative exploration was a hard struggle. It was cost enough that the work was so strenuous. Now, was my burden to be compounded by my suspecting, from the evidence of that very difficulty, that there must be something wrong with me and my way of doing creative work?
My desire for companionship at that point struck with redoubled force, and I went into the house to make a phone call. To whom? Someone who might have something sensible to say about this notion of the effortlessness of the creative flow state. I wanted someone who was him- or herself quite creative, and who was sensible.
That emphasis on the â€œsensibleâ€ reflected my disappointment in my recent search for companionship. It was because the people Iâ€™d sought out were partisans in an ideological polarity, I now thought, that Iâ€™d ended up feeling lonely. But I knew other people who, being less caught up in doctrine, might be better able to help me flesh out my understanding of the dance of integration. This thought helped cheer me up, even before I dialed my friend, David Landau, my first choice for the â€œeffortlessnessâ€ question.
David and I had become friends when weâ€™d both lived inside the Washington Beltway, and remained so from a distance, now that I was out in the mountains of Virginia and he had moved to the San Francisco area. Davidâ€™s lives as much along the dimension of the aesthetic as anyone I know. Having been trained initially as a historian, and having achieved early success with a book on Henry Kissinger, heâ€™d turned now in his forties to the writing of fiction. But his province included all the realms of the arts, and of high culture generally. At the beginning of most phone calls, I had to request that David turn down the music he had playing â€“often operaâ€“ so that I could hear him better.
â€œEffortless?â€ he asked, in response to my quick, one-sentence presentation of the reason for my call. â€œWhereâ€™d you get that idea?â€ I quoted him that statement concerning the flow state, and juxtaposed that with how arduous my own creative strivings felt to me. In response he gave a dismissive-sounding snort, and I decided then to reframe the question.
â€œYou know that Bach is my hero,â€ I said. â€œAll that fantastically beautiful music kept pouring out of him. If there are people who are masters of the flow, Bach must be among them. Now, when you think of Bach sitting there in Leipzig, composing those great cantatas, at the end of his workday, does he feel his day has been effortless?â€
â€œIâ€™ll tell you, Andy,â€ David said. â€œI expect that after some hours of composing, when old J.S. came home, he was plenty ready for his beer.â€
â€œYou mean, heâ€™s expended himself.â€
â€œOf course! This business of creating is intense! Go read what the masters have had to say. Like Flaubert â€¦. Itâ€™s tough sledding. Heavy lifting! A hard dayâ€™s work. In some ways, as hard as it gets.â€
I felt better. After some chat, and my thanking David, we hung up.
Reflecting on what David said, I started to wonder again: what about the flow? isnâ€™t there something valid about that â€œeffortlessnessâ€ idea? I decided to call David back and talk with him about it some more. But his line was busy. So, feeling still the strong impulse to reach out to my fellows for contact and the exchange of verbal pheromones, I decided to call my brother. Unlike David and me, however, he worksâ€“ by which I mean that he has scheduled times when he is â€œat workâ€ seeing clients. So I called his work answering machine, and left word that if he felt up for it during his lunch break, Iâ€™d like a few minutes with him on the phone but, if he didnâ€™t, that was OK and maybe Iâ€™d call him that evening. It was then about ten till twelve his time, so there was a chance he might call soon.
Sure enough, he called at a quarter after the hour. I briefed him on all that had led up to my call.
â€œYes, I think itâ€™s both,â€ Ed said. â€œThereâ€™s an effortlessness. And itâ€™s also hard work.â€
â€œBut rabbi,â€ I protested, â€œhow can they both be rightâ€¦?â€ I knew heâ€™d get the allusion.
â€œThereâ€™s a way in which one has only to get out of the way. But then, getting out of the way is a lot of work.â€
â€œNot all my work feels like â€˜getting out of the way,â€™â€ I interjected.
â€œYouâ€™re right, too!â€ Good old Ed. â€œLet me try again, using my own experience doing therapy. At the end of a day seeing clients, Iâ€™m really wiped. Most evenings, as you know, Iâ€™m up to little more than vegging out. So obviously Iâ€™m working hard.â€
â€œRight, working hard at doing nothing,â€ I said, agreeably, recalling our earlier exchange.
â€œPrecisely. And part of that â€˜doing nothingâ€™ has to do with being in a kind of flow state. Iâ€™m not aware of time passing, and Iâ€™m not really aware of my making an effort. Iâ€™m fully focused on really being present with the client, and entering into â€“your metaphor suits as well as anyâ€“ the dance.â€
â€œSo, does it just flow?â€
â€œYeah, like water from the ground.â€ Then he laughed, and added, â€œExcept the damn thing is operated by a hand crank, like we used to use when we went camping as kids.â€
â€œIâ€™m getting lost in the metaphor,â€ I said.
â€œThereâ€™s stuff that wants to flow. You donâ€™t put it there, itâ€™s a kind of gift. But it takes some effort to make way for it toâ€“ â€
â€œRight!â€ I interrupted, â€œFor the poet, thereâ€™s the muse who reveals the beautiful patterns. For a healer, as you said before, thereâ€™s the real Healer who makes things whole. Itâ€™s there in your earth. But to get it up where you can use it, it takes work.â€
â€œThatâ€™s it!â€ Ed declared. â€œWe donâ€™t make it, and so in that sense itâ€™s effortless. But to get itâ€“â€
â€œBut Ed,â€ I interrupted again, â€œI feel that in some ways, I do too â€˜make it.â€™ (Sorry to interrupt.)â€
â€œ(Thatâ€™s OK.) I guess I â€˜make it,â€™ too. Lemme think.â€ We were quiet for ten seconds.
â€œThe line just popped into my mind,â€ Ed said, â€œâ€˜Heaven helps those who help themselves.â€™â€
â€œI always thought that meant, donâ€™t count on heaven to do anything. Sort of like, â€˜Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.â€™ Youâ€™ve got to fight the fight yourself.â€
â€œNo, I think that heaven really does help those who help themselves,â€ Ed replied.
â€œDo you mean like that line at the end of Faust, where the hero ends up getting rescued from his damnation by the angel who says, Der strebend sich immer bemuht/ Den konnen wir erlosen? [He who strives ceaselessly, we angels can deliver]â€
â€œI dunno,â€ Ed said. â€œMaybe. But Faust is not my image of what weâ€™re supposed to be doing.â€
â€œNot much of a Christian, is he?â€ My brother, unlike me, is a believer in a recognizable religion, and it is, basically, if a bit in his own idiosyncratic fashion, Christianity.
â€œNo, nor a Taoist either,â€ he replied.
â€œWhich reminds me, how does all our hard work fit in with the Tao?â€
â€œI gotta get back to doing nothing. Client just came in. I canâ€™t tackle that one now. Maybe we can talk later.â€
As we said good by, I gave him a â€ Multo grazzi.â€
Late that evening, my time, I got an email from Ed saying, â€œThought about the hard work and Tao question. I think maybe, at some level, that hard work just flows too, effortlessly. All the Tao.â€
I wrote back. â€œHey, man. Thatâ€™s heavy!â€
And he replied, â€œItâ€™s not heavy. Iâ€™m your brother.â€
The next morning, I found myself musing about how much of the â€œbest workâ€ we do we should take credit for. And this led me to think about the place of â€œhumilityâ€ as part of the posture in the dance I wanted to explore. On the one hand, humility seems to involve getting out of the wayâ€“ â€œAll is done by the Holy Spirit through me,â€ in William Blakeâ€™s line; or â€œlet go, let God,â€ as some say. On the other hand, humility isnâ€™t easy. And if it does not come easily, it must mean that thereâ€™s some kind of â€œdoingâ€ getting it done. Humility as a form of discipline.
The phrase â€œKeeping oneself in perspectiveâ€ then came to me as a possible part of that â€œdiscipline.â€ And this led me to think about the idea of â€œdetachment.â€ Not getting too caught up in the ego and its immediate experiences and desires. A kind of detachment, I recalled, was also part of what Tina did in her NVC workâ€“ like being aware of oneâ€™s anger but not coming from the angry place. Which connected also with something in the â€œfocusingâ€ methodology. I went to my notes from my old friend, ****, whoâ€™s now involved in the focusing movement. Yes, here was a quote: â€œWhen some concern comes, DO NOT GO INSIDE IT. Stand back, say â€˜Yes, thatâ€™s there. I can feel that, there.â€™ Let there be a little space between you and that.â€ This was part of the instruction for getting in touch with the â€œfelt sense.â€ In Gendlinâ€™s approach, the ability to stand back, rather than being swept along, seems to be an important part of the unfolding.
I pondered a little on whether these kinds of â€œdoingâ€ involved what Iâ€™d been calling the â€œcontrollingâ€ element. Then I decided to sit with that problem, and I went downstairs to consult my email. A message from Ed awaited me.
Ed began with expressing concern about coming across in my book as too thoroughly a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. As a psychotherapist, he said, he works hard and uses skill, as well as the go-with-the-flow stuff. So he wanted to round out the image by talking about the dimension of guidance, the ways he intervenes to help things to flow along the most constructive of the available channels. And then he got more specific about his technique.
â€œFirst, I ask questions. Questions about whatever I donâ€™t understand, or whatever I find myself most intrigued about, in what is being said. Often, I formulate a hypothesis about the meaning of what the clientâ€™s saying, and I inquire further to test the hypothesis.
â€œSometimes my intention is to bring the person further into their experience, which in itself is usually valuable. So I might ask what the person is feeling, to help deepen the personâ€™s connection to the material being discussed.
â€œSometimes I might go the other direction, distancing someone from their
experience in order to protect against their feeling too overwhelmed or confused by their experience. So I might then ask what they see instead of what they feel.
â€œSometimes I will comment on material by remarking on it compassionately or pointing out what its meaning seems like to me.
â€œAll this these directions come from what I sense the person needs at the moment, and where I want the process to go. That usually depends on where the person is and what they say they want at any given time. More upon request. Love, ED.â€
I took all this in, noted that indeed Ed practiced a variety of disciplines in doing psychotherapy, using skill and judgment to help channel the unfolding process of his clients. In the practice of his art, he did integrate flow and control . Then I set aside Edâ€™s â€œguidanceâ€ remarks, and turned back to where my previous thoughts about â€œfocusingâ€ had been directing my attention.
To-ing and Fro-ing: The Process of Dialogue
My thoughts about the kind of discipline involved in the â€œfocusingâ€ processâ€“ for openers, the possible discipline of â€œdetachmentâ€â€“ brought to my mind another dimension of the art of the dance: a kind of back and forth swing between alternating states of mind.
Such a back-and-forth swing occurs, for example, in that part of the focusing process where one attempts to bring some sort of articulation to the inarticulate. The â€œfelt sense,â€ after all, does not automatically declare its meaning. And to integrate that felt sense fully into the unfolding of oneâ€™s life, some fitting conceptual articulation is apparently necessary. To facilitate this unfolding, the practitioner of focusing is therefore instructed: â€œGo back and forth between the felt sense and the word (phrase, or image). Check how they resonate with each other. See if there is a little bodily signal that lets you know there is a fit.â€
I remembered, at this point, the â€œfitâ€ I experienced when I came up with that word, â€œFailure,â€ earlier in the process of my developing this project, when I was trying to attend to the message embedded in the felt sense of the constriction in my chest.
Words matter. And words are channels that take the inchoate flow and give it form. Our concepts take the wildness of reality and domesticate it for our use. And this back and forth between the wildness and the domestication, between the freely-flowing and the form-giving, I venture, is essential if our consciousness is to find its right unfolding.
This reminded me of my interchange with Joe and Tim several days earlier. Form, to them, was suspect. Donâ€™t get conceptual. Donâ€™t attempt to explicate. My sense had been that their response was excessive, as if all controlling uses of the mind were over-controlling. Yet they were also sensitive to a possible problem.
Another writing of Gendlinâ€™s helped flesh out this two-fold reality, and to help clarify the importance of achieving a balance between receptivity and control in our mental processes.
The passage appears in a piece of Gendlinâ€™s entitled â€œThe Philosophy of Experiencing,â€ where heâ€™s talking about the way that ideas have a logic in them that can drive us along into further ideas. (In the piece, Gendlin specifically looks at Jeffersonâ€™s idea about human equality and at Freudâ€™s premise about a homeostatic quality to the function of the human organism.) Gendlin cautions against an over-reliance on finding our truths simply by â€œderivingâ€ them from the logic of our initial notions. There is a power and a value to pursuing the logic of our ideas, but it is dangerous, in his view, if we give that logic too much control over our understanding of the world.
Gendlin wants us to keep open the channels that connect us with the reality beyond our ideas, which means in particular keeping open the channels to our experience. Thatâ€™s the back and forth: the notion â€œthat we can â€˜zig-zagâ€™ back and forth between logic and our felt sense.â€
This back and forth is Gendlinâ€™s solution to the problem Iâ€™m imagining underlies that anti-conceptual bias that I encountered, the danger of our ideas overpowering our experience, of flow being blocked by the channels of control. â€œWe must let the experiences lead us further, not the concepts,â€ Gendlin says. The concepts are important, but they cannot be allowed to become absolute rulers. They must continually be validated by the reality which they claim to channel. â€œ(W)hen the logic of a theory leads us to something, we do not simply accept the conclusion from the theory; instead we look for the experience which that conclusion names and locates.â€
I look at the logic of Gendlinâ€™s argument, and chuckle at the two lines that come up in my mind. From Ronald Reagan, the famous line about his approach to arms control: â€œTrust, but verify,â€ meaning in this case that however much we love our concepts, our further unfolding toward wisdom requires that we keep the doors open for inarticulate experience to continue expressing itself. Trust your concepts, but keep them subject to continual verification. And then a line from Jeffersonâ€™s Declaration of Independence, declaring that government derives its legitimate powers from â€œthe consent of the governed,â€ in this case meaning that the concepts we allow to â€œgovernâ€ our perception of experience must continually be tested to see if that experience continues to â€œconsentâ€ to those conceptual channels. And the experience whose consent Gendlin has particularly in mind is that â€œfelt sense.â€
By means of this back-and-forth process, Gendlin indicates, â€œwe are led further by the experience, but not only as it is already named, cut and defined by the theory, rather as a â€¦ felt sense.â€ And that â€œfurtherâ€ means an unfolding of our thinking in new directions â€œthat could not possibly follow from the theory â€” even though that very theory led us to that experience.â€
It is from the dialogue between the two elements â€“what we donâ€™t control, and what we doâ€“ that right unfolding comes.
Standing back from this template Gendlin provides, I find that its pattern overlays nicely with another back-and-forth Iâ€™d considered earlier: the dialogue, in the process of writing, between the spontaneous creator and the critical judge.
Like the conceptual, the judgmental also is in ill-repute in some sub-cultural circles in our times. Both are regarded as too controlling, too narrowing, too inhibiting of the freedom of the spirit. And in both cases, the rejection of these operations of our minds is an over-reaction, a throwing out of baby with bathwater.
Lamottâ€™s lousy first drafts idea reflects the fear that the judging eye of the editor might choke off altogether the flow from the place of spontaneous creation. And Nachmanovitch says thereâ€™s trouble if â€œthe editor precedes rather than follows the museâ€¦â€ But unless the editor shows up at all, the result is not apt to be great art.
Back and forth. The trick is for the different voices to have a constructive partnership, for their dialogue to be one based on mutual respect and teamwork.
And, again, it occurs to me, part of the discipline involves detachment. The artist is not just expressing her own experience, but is using artistry to evoke that experiential space in an audience. She is creating for the eyes â€“and minds, and heartsâ€“ of others, and that means that an indispensable part of the creative process is the ability to step back and view the unfolding creation from the outside. Tune inward, step outward.
This train of thought brings me back to the notion of detachment as part of (what I continued to think of as) the discipline of Non-Violent Communication. NVC might be regarded as a way of realizing the ethic of the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do onto you. Detachment is implied in the word â€œwould,â€ which implies the imaginative leap of putting oneself in the position of the other. Such a way of being with people certainly is a moral challenge, but the intellectual and imaginative dimension of the task should not be overlooked.
But the dialogue in NVC requires much moreâ€“ it requires also that element of flow and unfolding. Whatâ€™s required is not just considerateness, some sort of churchly politeness or goody-two-shoes piety, but also complete emotional openness. As with Gendlinâ€™s felt sense, one is called upon to be a good listener to oneâ€™s internal experience, respecting it fully as a source of a truth essential to the dialogueâ€™s proper unfolding. But even this truth is not just blurted out, but articulated from a detached place that compassionately embraces both parties to the dialogueâ€“ that anger expressed but not from the angry place.
Once again, tuning in and stepping back.
Step By Step
At this point, the image of â€œthe next stepâ€ from my radio show with Tina pops into my mind. It seemed connected with this dialogue of to-ing and fro-ing, but it wasnâ€™t clear how.
Letâ€™s see, the idea during the radio show was that the callers wanted Tina and me to supply them a full script that leads some troubled relationship of theirs to a happy ending. And on at least a couple of occasions, Tina would tell the caller that she couldnâ€™t give them a â€œsolution,â€ but that perhaps she could help them find a â€œnext good stepâ€ that might help get things moving toward some outcome theyâ€™d feel was right.
This obviously connected with â€œdialogue,â€ in that it involved entering into dialogue with this other person. But that wasnâ€™t what Iâ€™d sensed. Was there some way that the â€œnext stepâ€ connected with the kind of dialogue Iâ€™d just been thinking about, the back and forth within oneself between different kinds of consciousness, one of them more or less receptive of the flow and the other shaping the process with a kind of discipline?
Then I glimpsed that it was some other kind of â€œnext stepâ€ Iâ€™d encountered that was connected with this to-and-fro dance of integration. It wasnâ€™t the one with Tina on the show but analogous to it. I could sense its shape, but couldnâ€™t recall it clearly. Then, by whatever is that mysterious process by which we come up with things, like the word thatâ€™s on the tip of our tongue, or the name of the person whom at first we can only picture, that vague recollection came into focus for me.
It was something Iâ€™d come across in Perkinsâ€™ The Mindâ€™s Best Work, and I went to my notes to review the particulars. Some psychologists had recruited a group of student artists and had done a study in which these artists were invited to make an arrangement using their choices among a variety of available objects and then to draw a still-life drawing of what theyâ€™d composed. The study found a relationship between how the students went about this task and the quality of their drawings and their subsequent professional success.
The most effective artists, Perkins writes, â€œtended not to have a definite idea of the sort of principle they wanted to capture in their arrangements, but discovered arrangements through handling the objects.â€ In other words, the best work came not from those who proceeded as if they knew from the outset what their final outcome would be, but from those who entered into a process of dialogue with the material at hand. (Like Michaelsâ€™ â€œnew leadership,â€ I thought: they donâ€™t try to know everything, but are content to learn as they go along.)
Perkins goes on to say of these more effective artists that â€œas they proceeded with their drawings, they more often rearranged or substituted objects, changed paper or switched medium, and transformed the scene in the drawingsâ€¦ The final structure of the drawing tended to become obvious later rather than earlier.â€ (Like Tinaâ€™s counsel to the callers, the wisdom lay in not seeking a whole roadmap to oneâ€™s destination, but in finding a way to take the next good step.)
As I made these connections, I became aware of a nice feeling creeping over me. It felt good to be, once again, exploring the beauties of the dance of unfolding. My initial joy â€“in the vision of how people can enter into a process in which good comes through and to them, without their being able to envision that good at the outsetâ€“ was returning now.
I was glad to discover that my newer perspective, combining flow and control in the same celebrated dance, left room for that joy. Things did not need to be so simple, as Iâ€™d first thought them to be, to be beautiful.
Positioning as Subtle Control
The best young artists in the study had alternated between taking action and then standing back, between putting something out and then taking the result in. They had not insisted on knowing in advance where they were heading, but were willing to allow things to unfold. Once again, I had the feeling: something in this pattern is familiar.
Then it came to me. The fit wasnâ€™t perfect, but the parallel was certainly there. The approach of these artists â€“a â€œstep-by-step and letâ€™s see what unfoldsâ€ approachâ€“ had a lot in common with that approach to decision-making that Iâ€™d adopted over the years, and that Iâ€™d sensed had a bearing on the unfolding project. (It was that interest that had originally led me to seek out dialogue with my psychologist acquaintance, Sam.)
Earlier in my life, as a way of navigating through life, Iâ€™d leaned more toward long-term planning. Choose a long-term goal, make elaborate plans for how to get there, and then take off for your destination. Something like air-travelâ€“ with a scheduled take-off and landing, and not much openness for changing plans because of interactions with any of the points in between.
Not an unreasonable way of proceeding, for some purposes.
Certainly some degree of planning â€“even very long-term planningâ€“ is wise. Sometimes itâ€™s necessary to commit to a course of action far in advance of having all the information. For example, I favor the greenhouse-gasses treaty signed at Kyoto because the possible dangers of postponing action are simply too great. In other instances, the essential predictability of future events means that it would be folly to wait to bump into them before making provision for them. It should be no surprise, for example, that a child will one day be of college age, and that funds to pay for education will then be needed. And itâ€™s because winterâ€™s coming is entirely predictable that the ants and not the grasshoppers are the heroes of the famous fable.
But in some rather important domains of my life, Iâ€™ve come over the years to play the game rather differently, moving my pieces as developments unfold. More accurately, I see myself as tending simultaneously a great variety of games â€“perhaps one involving a foreign policy think tank, while another concerns a publication, a third a radio talk show, etc. Much of my time is spent in waiting for things to unfold in those pieces of the world which I have engaged. Then, as opportunity ripens in one game or another, composing a move of my own that I hope will help them unfold further.
As a result, I feel that, in large measure, it is the unfoldings of the world â€“more than any plan of my ownâ€“ that govern just which are the channels along which my creative energies will flow. The way I happened into the radio work, which I related earlier, is a perfect illustration of this. If this opportunity should become blocked, my flow will find some other channel.
Itâ€™s a kind of opportunism.
The more Iâ€™ve lived this way in my work life, the more Iâ€™ve come to appreciate this way of proceeding. Step-by-step, feeling my way, letting things unfold as much as possible before committing, making decisions only when and only to the extent that is required. My father, the economist, taught me, â€œIn times of uncertainty, maintain maximum flexibility.â€ Having come to regard all times as â€œtimes of uncertainty,â€ Iâ€™ve come to believe that this teaching affords wisdom for life generally.
â€œYou know, that parallels a shift in the way I play chess,â€ was the response I got from my friend Mark when I emailed him about my decision-making approach. â€œI played chess a fair amount when I was a boy,â€ Mark continued, â€œand my approach to the game was heavily tilted toward having Big Plans. Iâ€™d strain my brain trying to think a half dozen moves ahead, and envisioning a precise series of moves by which Iâ€™d capture one piece or another.
â€œOf course, the plans required that the other guy make the moves I had in mind for him. A good deal of the time, the other player wouldnâ€™t cooperate with my elaborate scheme, and Iâ€™d have to go back to the drawing board. I was a fairly decent player for a kid, but nothing great.
â€œAnd then I dropped chess. And didnâ€™t get back into it until the past few years. I wasnâ€™t interested in games any more, including chess, having enough real-life games going on in my life. But my son got chess for his 10th birthday, and he begged me to play with him and so, being a devoted father, I did. It was a mismatch, of course, but he loved the game so I played with him, and taught him, and gradually got interested again.
â€œOnce I was interested, it was frustrating not to play against someone better matched with me. So I went out onto the Internet and downloaded as good a chess-playing program as I could find. And suffered the Kasparov syndrome, albeit at a much, much lower level: the pain of humiliation of being beaten by a machine.
â€œAnyway, after a couple of weeks, I started beating the machine. Thatâ€™s when I noticed that I was playing the game completely differently from the way Iâ€™d played as a kid. Instead of making elaborate schemes, and taxing my mind designing complex operations, what I was paying attention to was positioning. Did the disposition of my pieces feel right? Were they deployed so that pieces were well-guarded, so that my king had protection and some room to maneuver, so that I could get some of my power pieces into the attack if the opportunity presented itself?
â€œAll in all, I felt I was operating much more lightly on my figurative feet. Iâ€™d wait for things to unfold, and then deal with the demands and opportunities I was presented, attending above all to feeling well-positioned. Itâ€™s kind of an Aikido approach to the game.â€
After a brief exchange we had about this, Mark ended up saying that although he understood full well that a really fine player would combine this attention to positioning with the construction of clever strategies, he was impressed by how powerful his relaxed, Aikido-like approach turned out to be. Much stronger, he felt, than heâ€™d formerly been as a carefully-planning player, even though the amount of effort was much less.
â€œSee what comes, and make adjustments accordingly,â€ was how he tied together our two game-playing strategies â€” his at chess, and mine in my life.
â€œIf you donâ€™t mind my saying so,â€ my friend Ted began when I carried my positioning/opportunism idea to him, â€œyouâ€™ve adopted this approach because youâ€™re a marginal player. If you occupied a more powerful position on the map, youâ€™d play differently.â€ Tedâ€™s a psychologist practicing in Washington, D.C., and I was having lunch with him on one of my rare excursions into town.
I asked him to explain his point.
â€œThink of it this way: how often do you have to say No? I mean to some attractive opportunity.â€
I admitted that an embarrassment of riches was not my problem.
â€œExactly! If the world were more your oyster â€“if the djinee were there saying, â€˜Iâ€™ll grant your every wishâ€™â€“ youâ€™d be more into control. Youâ€™d be in a position to sculpt your life more in accordance with your own design, since the block of available material would be so much bigger than the figure youâ€™d create out of it. But youâ€™ve had to develop the gift, rather, of the beachcomber, whoâ€“â€
At this point I objected to the notion that my position was so marginal as to compel me to deal, like a beachcomber, only with found goodies. He sustained my objection, I affirmed that his overall point was well-taken, and he resumed.
â€œOK, another metaphor. Youâ€™re not in the position of being a customer in a restaurant with a big menu, allowing you to compose precisely the meal you want. Instead, youâ€™ve got to be a patient hunter, learning the lay of the land and the paths of the various critters, and trapping anything edible that shows up. â€˜A rabbit! Oh goodâ€“ meat today!â€™â€
Tedâ€™s point seemed to me an important one, with relevance far beyond my own situation and strategy, so I explored it further with him. The extent of oneâ€™s power in relation to surrounding forces, we ended up agreeing, is a determinant of what strategy is wisest for one to adopt. â€œAn elephant wouldnâ€™t use Aikido to handle a mosquito,â€ was one formulation of the principle we came up with. But when the mosquito has to deal with an elephant, why, thatâ€™s another matter.
A Cultural Thing
Something in the news soon led to the further unfolding of this line of exploration about the value of good positioning especially for one who is contending with greater powers.
The U.S. Congress had just issued a report describing the possible adverse impact of U.S. trade relations with China on the national security of the United States. The gist of the report was that, in a variety of ways, and over a period of some twenty years, we Americans had been giving â€“or perhaps, in this case, the better word would be â€œsellingâ€â€“the Chinese the rope to hang us. In pursuit of commercial profits, the United States government had consented over the years to a whole variety of transactions that, according to the report, could help the Chinese diminish the American advantage in military power.
â€œTheyâ€™ve got our number,â€ said my friend Michael, with whom Iâ€™ve kept in touch over the years since we worked together at the major foreign policy think tank in Washington where he was still situated. â€œAnd our number has a dollar sign in front of it.â€
This was the evening of that same day in Washington on which Iâ€™d had lunch with Ted, and we were having dinner at an old haunt of ours on K St., though actually it was a completely different restaurant on the same site, hardly anything in that area having stayed the same over the almost twenty years since our haunting times.
â€œYeah, weâ€™re so oriented toward maximizing our short term profit,â€ I concurred, â€œthat we can pretty well be lead around by the nose. Get enough big companies hankering for unfettered trade between the countries, and their lobbyists will get a national policy to match their wishes. And who on the other side of the issue cares enough, and knows enough, to counter such lobbying pressure?â€
â€œItâ€™s the Chinese side of the picture I find most interesting,â€ Michael replied. â€œTheir approach is so oriental, so Aikidoâ€“ using knowledge of the opponentâ€™s tendencies, his way of moving, to get the opponent to undo himself.
â€œI mean, weâ€™re so much more powerful than they are, at this point at least,â€ Michael continued, â€œhow else could they defeat us except by so positioning themselves in relationship to us that our power subtly flows from us to them.â€
Even without Michaelâ€™s using the word â€œpositioning,â€ Iâ€™d probably have made the connection with the earlier conversation Iâ€™d had with Ted, about power and the various strategies of either allowing things to unfold, or making them happen, depending upon oneâ€™s relative power in the situation, depending, that is, on whether one was more of an elephant or a mosquito. But in any event, when Michael mentioned positioning, the spark in my mind shot the gap.
I explained to Michael those earlier ideas and made the connection between them and the strategy he was imputing to the Chinese. â€œThe Chinese see us as divided between commercial interests and national security interests, while they, by contrast â€“what with the state and its power concerns so predominant in Chinaâ€“ are more unitary. So they can exploit the advantage of their single-mindedness and arrange for things to unfold to their benefit and our detriment. Being the weaker party, they resort to clever positioning to get us to undo ourselves. Right?â€
At first, Michael simply assented. But then he hesitated, and declared that it was not just a matter of their being the weaker party, and thus using, in effect, â€œthe tools of the weak. No, thereâ€™s something else,â€ he said, â€œand thatâ€™s the cultural element I alluded to. Something in their Asian worldview that disposes them to look at â€˜unfolding,â€™ as you put it, in such terms.â€ And he became distracted, as if he were trying to remember something.
Trying to minimize my interruption of his process of recollection, I signaled my interest in knowing more about this cultural element. And after a half minute, he started coming up with something.
â€œI read somewhere â€“the image is still vivid in my mind, if also vague, if thatâ€™s possibleâ€“ a comparison between the Greek approach to conflict and that of the Chinese. The Greeks were interested in a dramatic showdown, with maximal collision. And the Chinese were oriented (pardon the expression) toward letting things flow, and trying to make subtle adjustments in the channels, or in their own position, so that the flow would go their way. Without the drama. So the outcome is settled before the battle begins.â€
I told Michael Iâ€™d really like to read whatever it was from which he learned about this, but he couldnâ€™t recall. He promised, though, to let me know if it came to him. And sure enough, when I got home late that night, an email from Michael gave me the information: â€œItâ€™s The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China, by a Frenchman named Francois Jullien. Itâ€™s a strange and learned and fascinating book. Take a look at it. I think you will find that it â€“like perseveranceâ€“ furthers,â€ he concluded, making reference to one of the frequent phrases in the I Ching. â€œPS: Take a look at pp. 34-36 for the Greek bit.â€ And then, â€œPPS: I found my copy, buried under several more recent geological strata of my reading, and Iâ€™m FedExing it to you. (Consider it partial payment for all your uncompensated participation at _____)â€ And he named the old think tank, where he still worked.
Sure enough, like anything that absolutely positively has to be there overnight, the book was there the next day. I dove into it, starting with the designated pages and discovered these passages: â€œWhereas tragic man clashes irrevocably against superior powersâ€¦ the Chinese strategist prides himself on his ability to manage all the factors in playâ€¦ â€ â€œC)onfrontation lies at the heart of [the tragic and heroic] vision.â€ (And it told of the scorn the Greeks felt for projectile weapons, because such weapons could kill without regard to the personal merits of the respective warriors.) By contrast, the core concept of the Chinese was shi, meaning the disposition or propensity of things, and here the goal was to prevail with minimal dramatization of oneâ€™s own personal qualities. As Jullien notes elsewhere in the book, â€œthe best general is one whose successes are not applaudedâ€ because they appear â€œeasy.â€
The contrast between the Greek and Chinese approaches was fascinating, but the comparative piece was really only a momentary sideline in an exploration that was really focused on the Chinese view of things.
The concept of shi, meaning disposition, or propensity, Jullien wrote, was connected with â€œthe most central idea of Chinese culture: the perpetually renewed efficacy of the course of natureâ€¦â€ Strains of Chuang Tzu, there. The way to proceed is to use â€œminimum effort to achieve maximum effectâ€..â€simply by exploiting the factors in play.â€ Sounds like the knife of Chuang Tzuâ€™s famous butcher, carving the ox, never going up against bone. (Ah, here he actually quotes a guy he calls Zhuangzi â€“probably the same guy: â€œThings â€˜tendâ€™ of themselves, infallibly, with no need for â€˜effort.â€™â€ ) The trick is to determine as early as possible â€œthe future orientation of events.â€ Seeing where things are heading, we can ride the wave to where we want to get: â€œInstead of trying to impose our own preferences on it, we should let ourselves go with the flow of things, adopting the line of least resistance.â€ We seek to understand the disposition of forces in the world around us, because they are unfolding in â€œa process that can evolve to our advantage if we make opportune use of its propensity.â€ Go with the flow, but navigate our way with the flow so we can get ashore where it serves our purpose. Then back to the military arena, where the these principles â€“minimal effort to maximal effect, and opportunistic alignment with the flowâ€“ mean that â€œif a good generalâ€™s â€˜actionâ€™ is taken at the ideal moment, it is not even detectable.â€
â€œNot even detectable.â€ That got me thinking again about where this whole line of thinking about China had begun, in the conversation between Michael and me about the House Committeeâ€™s report about U.S.-China trade. That report was describing a process that had been evolving for the past twenty years, and now at long last here was somebody detecting it. Of course, reports come and go. So it would be interesting to see whether this little piece of detection of a possible problem will rouse the whole national organism to detect it, and perhaps to act accordingly.
After all, weâ€™re the heirs of the Greeks, the guys who liked their combat decided by duking it out head-to-head. None of this sissy shi stuff. (Of course, there was the Trojan Horse, but Odysseus was not considered the great warrior that Achilles was: Odysseus used stealth to undo his opponent, while Achilles dared any man of Ilium to meet him in broad daylight and see whose bowels ended up in the dust.) Weâ€™re much more attuned to seeing the contest in the climactic terms of direct confrontation. And we are inclined, moreover, to pay little attention to our own propensities, and to the subtle ways that things are evolving. As the Greeks hated the projectiles, while the Chinese loved the crossbow (a device that killed from a great distance and thus was an apt symbol of shi ), we â€“the heirs of the Greeksâ€“ do not look for actions at a distance in time. With our propensity to focus on short-term profit, we can be made to work for another power in a way that might enable them â€“at some distant futureâ€“ to supplant us.
Reading, later that afternoon, further along in The Propensity of Things, I came to a passage in Jullien that seemed to fit most aptly what Michael and I were speculating might have been happening in the U.S.-China relationship. â€œ(E)verything must be designed to paralyze [the otherâ€™s] plans and wishes and to force him to work, despite himself, toward fulfilling the aims imposed on him.â€ The wise player exploits â€œthe inherent play of forcesâ€ as he seeks â€œto strengthen the imposed coercion without arousing the oppositionâ€™s suspicion.â€
Riding the Wave
When I went to sleep that night, I felt both gratified and a bit discomfited. Gratified that it had proved so fruitful to explore the idea that the art of positioning is part of the dance of helping things unfold well. A bit discomfited by the way the unfolding of that idea had taken me into such unlovely aspects of the human condition as the struggle for dominance. Not the kind of spiritually enlightened quest for beauty and goodness that had originally inspired my inquiry.
On reflection, I became somewhat more reconciled to my inquiryâ€™s bringing me into the precincts of Realpolitik. After all, as the â€œRealâ€ in Realpolitik suggests, the problem of power is a realityâ€“ and one that people have been compelled to confront, often as a matter of life and death. If it is life-serving to heal from illness, to create the loving human bonds that sustain our lives, on what basis should we consider less worthy those equally necessary tasks of finding a way of surviving in a world plagued by the play of power?
In the morning, I woke up to find an email message from Ted. It had been written, evidently, in the middle of the night.
â€œI feel I owe you something of an apology,â€ Ted wrote. â€œI trust that you know I wasnâ€™t trying to put you down when I spoke of your marginality, and when I suggested that itâ€™s your relative powerlessness in the world that it makes it adaptive for you to adopt the strategy of positioning/opportunism in playing the game of life. But I do think that, in differentiating you from those people for whom the world is their oyster, I was distorting the picture somewhat, and distorting it in a way that revealed my underestimating the scope of your insight.
â€œYou may wonder, what leads old Ted to follow up on that perfectly decent conversation with a message of self-correction. Good question. Itâ€™s funny how it happened. You might say, it came to me in a dream. Literally. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m up now, an hour before dawn.
â€œI just dreamt that I was drowning in a raging sea. Submerged in dark waters, I felt the huge waves passing over me, raising me up and lowering me in alternation. I was flailing around ineffectually, in a panic. Just as I thought it was all over for me, I felt this hand come down and grab me by the neck of my shirt, plucking me out of the water into a tiny boat.
â€œIt was then that I saw that the hand that saved me was that of my Uncle Gezaâ€“ who in actuality has been dead since I was in my early teens. As I huddled, shivering on the bottom of the boat, between Uncle Gezaâ€™s feet, he was gently using a little paddle to guide the craft among the huge waves of the storm. Somehow, he managed to make our passage if not smooth at least in harmony with the waves.
â€œAt the end of the dream, things became calm, and I sat up in the boat and looked at my uncleâ€™s face and he beamed a luminous and gentle smile at me. Then I awakened, feeling both shaken and blessed.
â€œAs I lay in bed absorbing this heavy experience, my thoughts turned quickly to the conversation that you and I had. I suddenly realized that, at some fundamental level, none of us are really powerful in relation to the forces at work around us.
â€œI should tell you something about the life of my Uncle Geza; it helps explain, I think, what he was doing there in my dream from the storm. Actually, he was my great uncle, the brother of my grandfather. He was a successful banker in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and during the 1930s, he saw the storms gathering over Europe and began making provision for a way to America for himself and the family. Then, when the Naziâ€™s annexed Austria, he left behind the successful personal empire heâ€™d built, coming to America and just starting over.
â€œHe was able to take to America enough money either to carve out a modest niche for himself in the new country, or to get all the rest of the extended family out of the reach of the Nazis. He chose the latter, and then started building a life again, working his way up from virtually the bottom. It was a wonder to the family how smoothly he made that transition from one country to the other, from his previous eminent position to the humble status to which he was now, in early middle age, consigned. It seemed to trouble him not at all, Iâ€™m told. One line that my father would quote from him, evidently from that early time in America, was something like: â€˜Wherever you are, whatever kind of shoes youâ€™re wearing, the job of walking is still to put one foot in front of the other.â€™
â€œBy the time I remember him, from the early 1950s, heâ€™d actually managed to build up a reasonably successful business. And, of course, he enjoyed a much venerated place in the familyâ€“ the one whoâ€™d seen the storm coming and had steered the people he loved clear of danger. Then, while he was still a vigorous man, he suffered a massive heart attack. I think he was about 60 when that happened. It almost killed him, but somehow it didnâ€™t.
â€œWhen he recovered from the immediate crisis of the heart attack, he took stock of his new capacities and â€“once againâ€“ simply changed his life. He sold off his business, and completely changed the pace and focus of his living. In this slower life, he was no longer the macher heâ€™d always been, but instead became this wise and avuncular figure who was â€“more than anything elseâ€“ simply present for the family. I remember those times when heâ€™d come over to where I was playing, or just hanging out, Iâ€™d immediately feel different: deeper, warmer, better. Maybe it was the love he radiated. Maybe it was the choice wise words that heâ€™d occasionally utter â€“when some argument would break out, perhaps, around the Monopoly board, or on the baseball field. Whatever it was, he continued to give something to all of us in those few years he had left, when he no longer had the strength to build things with his drive and his will.
â€œSo, you can see the connection. Here was a man of great power. Nonetheless, life didnâ€™t always unfold according to his plan. Yet when the great waves came, he found a way to ride with them. Come to think of it, I think that apologetic impulse with which I began was really directed toward Uncle Geza, that in our conversation the day before yesterday, I spoke as if I hadnâ€™t learned one of the great lessons embodied in his life.
â€œOur sense of our own power can be an illusion, and a dangerous one. TEDâ€
I found Tedâ€™s message quite moving. I wished that I might have had the opportunity to meet his Uncle Geza. There might be a lot, I imagined, one could learn from such a person. Though I wanted to send Ted some sort of reply right away, I found myself distracted by something that had been triggered in my mind back in the early part of the message, where he was telling about his dream. And so I allowed myself to go into that distracting feeling, and see what it was trying to say to me.
What came first was the recognition that what had triggered this feeling was the image of huge waves. As I stayed with that another minute or so, I began to recall an earlier line of inquiry about which Iâ€™d altogether forgotten. Early in my researches for this project, I had decided to explore the world of surfing.
An intuition had told me that sport surfing might give me a route into exploring the unfolding process. I say â€œsportâ€ but, as I discovered when I followed some Internet trails into the subject, I might as aptly have called surfing a â€œreligious practice.â€ Those trails led me to a couple of conversations with people whose vision and sensibilities I deeply respected, and led me also to wish that I had shared in vital experiences such as theirs among the great waves.
In one such conversation, with â€¦ Pezman, I felt quite affirmed in my intuition about surfing as an apt metaphor for the unfolding. He spoke about the way one learns to read each wave almost automatically. (Each wave being unique, he said, in its shape, in the play of the wind, etc.) And he spoke of the intuitive way the surfer adjusts to the evolving nature of the wave, on a second-by-second basis. My notes highlighted one metaphor from Pezman: he said that surfing is like life, a practice in which one learns â€œhow to place oneself in relation to a great, potentially dangerous force.â€
My process of recollection now complete, I no longer felt distracted, and I sat down to write to Ted.
I began by expressing how I deeply, and in many ways, appreciated his message. Then I told him about how his dream image had reminded me of my exploration of surfing, concluding with Pezmanâ€™s great metaphor. And then I went on to accept Tedâ€™s revision of his earlier perspective. â€œIt may be that in some domains of life,â€ I wrote, â€œsome people have a lot of power, and can sculpt from an ample block whatever shape they wish. But Pezmanâ€™s metaphor may be more fundamentally right about how great our powers are in relation to the larger Wave that carries us along.â€
And then I concluded with a reference to something else Jullien had said about the Greeks. â€œHe says that tragic man â€˜clashes irrevocably against superior powersâ€™ only to make the fatal discovery, â€˜all too late,â€™ of his destiny. Better to be like your Uncle Geza who, with his little paddle, aligns himself in harmony with the great waves. ANDYâ€
A little while later, I received a very warm message back from Ted, which included this paragraph: â€œItâ€™s not for no reason that the Greeks saw hubris as the greatest of human sins. The belief that oneâ€™s own greatness makes one master of oneâ€™s destiny, the Greek tragedyâ€™s showed, was the road to ruin. And for their object lessons in this truth, the Greekâ€™s chose not the marginal figures, but the greatest among the mortalsâ€“ the rulers, the heroes, those for whom the world seemed their oyster. TEDâ€
Can We Trust Our Dance Partner?
After my earlier conversation with Ted â€” where heâ€™d suggested that the strategy of using positioning to affect the unfolding subtly was suitable for people in a weaker position, but not for the strongerâ€“ Iâ€™d emailed my brother to get his thoughts about it. It was the response I got back from him that, as it turned out, led me into the next phase of my inquiry. Which was strange, since what he sent back was a joke Iâ€™d heard before and had never thought very funny.
Itâ€™s the joke about some little kid who has grown up from infancy and hasnâ€™t said a word. Then one day, when heâ€™s seven or eight, while heâ€™s eating his lunch, he says to his mother, â€œThereâ€™s too much salt in the soup.â€ His mother is astonished, of course, and when she recovers from her astonishment she asks her son, â€œIf you can speak, how come youâ€™ve never said anything before?â€ To which the kid responds, â€œEverythingâ€™s been OK till now.â€
That was it. Edâ€™s whole message was that dumb joke.
But it got me thinking.
â€œDo you mean, Ed,â€ I wrote back in response, â€œthat how much control we try to exert on the flow is a function not only of how much power we have to shape the flow, but also how satisfactory we find the destination to which the flow is heading on its own?â€
No response. Ed has his email time of the day, and in between times, he doesnâ€™t check. In the absence of an answer, I decided to head out on my own.
It made sense to me: if it ainâ€™t broke, donâ€™t fix it. Why meddle in a good thing?
But whatâ€™s the thing so good that we can leave alone to unfold as it will? This question â€“that old issue of trustâ€“ had arisen before. The idea of unfolding, at the outset, seemed premised on the notion that we can relinquish control to forces that will direct the flow of events in ways that can be trusted. The question had been: just what is it outside our will thatâ€™s so trustworthy?
As I recalled, thereâ€™d been two directions to look. The human will â€“that part of us that pilots us through the seas of lifeâ€“ could be seen as surrounded by a microcosm of psychological forces dwelling within us, and by a macrocosm of larger systemic or cosmic forces operating all around us. To the extent that either of these sets of forces could be trusted to unfold on their own in ways that serve our good, weâ€™d have no need to interfere with their unfolding.
In the psychological realm, the creative muse was one such possibly trustworthy force: get the judging element out of the way so that the underground spring can gush forth with its good stuff.
In the realm of the surrounding world, the idea of benign governing forces was exemplified by my friend Calvinâ€™s cherished idea of â€œtrusting the universe.â€ And there were other, more theological notions like having faith in divine providence or yielding to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Then I thought of a more ambiguous example: what kind of thinking, I wondered, underlies the market ideologueâ€™s trust in the workings Adam Smithâ€™s â€œinvisible handâ€? At first glance, it seemed that â€œfaith in the marketâ€ did not fit into my dichotomy between trusting some aspect of human nature and trusting the forces that rule the cosmos. But upon reflection, I decided that the market ideology â€“with its faith in the workings of an impersonal systemâ€“ represented a version of the second. It grew out of a vision, then emerging in the West, about the overall â€œnature of things.â€
In its origins, the ideology of the market regarded the laissez-faire economic system as natural. And just as the Newtonian universe ran smoothly and beautifully on its own, requiring nothing of God once Heâ€™d put it into motion, so also was it believed that the natural workings of the market mechanisms could be trusted because this was the kind of trustworthy cosmos the Almighty had created. Adam Smithâ€™s trust, I decided, was a species of â€œtrusting the universe.â€
Once Iâ€™d satisfied myself that there was merit in my dichotomizing the trustworthy into two basic species â€“in shorthand, â€œtrust of human natureâ€ and â€œtrust in the forces that rule the universeâ€â€“ I felt drawn to look back over my recent conversations about â€œpositioningâ€ to see how they might relate to this issue of trust.
The first thing to be noted here, I decided, was that the strategy of positioning concerns our relationship with the surrounding world, not with the internal forces of the human psyche. Then there was the question: is the matter of trust what divides the subtle approach of â€œpositioningâ€ from the more aggressive approach of trying to dominate and shape?
And the provisional hypothesis that arose out of my interpretation of Edâ€™s dumb joke was: the less we trust the universe, the more weâ€™ll focus on control.
The case of the Greeks, I decided, with their inclination toward maximal confrontation, fit well my â€œless trust means more focus on controlâ€ hypothesis. Ted had spoken of the sin of hubris in the Greek worldview, suggesting that the Greeks somehow understood that an arrogant will in a mere mortal leads to ruination. Tedâ€™s brief statement, however, left out something about the idea of hubris quite relevant to how trustworthy the Greeks saw the universe as being: the fact that the Greeks saw human greatness as by itself provoking divine punishment. This demonstrates their sense of a fundamental hostility toward humans among the divine forces that rule the world. No trust there.
Now, how about the Chinese example by contrast? At one level, the Chinese view of things articulated by Jullien would seem to show human beings operating in a world that was anything but benign. His delineation of the uses of shi constitutes a manual for how to prevail in war, how to exploit the weaknesses of opponents, how to compel others to serve oneâ€™s ends. At that level, the Chinese occupy a world as beset by the war of all against all as anything in Thucydides, or in later Western realists like Machiavelli or Hobbes.
But perhaps there were two levels operating in this Chinese worldview. On the one hand, there was this focus on power and conflictâ€“ an obsession growing out of bitter historical experience. But on the other hand, the way the Chinese adapted to their chronically untrustworthy world bore the imprint of a philosophical perspective predicated on a very different view of the forces that rule the world, a view according to which things just naturally flow the way they should.
So, perhaps the Chinese were, in a roundabout way, also a confirming case of the â€œless trust means more controlâ€ hypothesis.
But now the line of thinking triggered by Edâ€™s dumb joke had me returning to a question more fundamental that concerning how different cultures have understood the world to be (and how this influences their actions in it). This question concerns how our world actually is: how trustworthy are the forces beyond our control? And therefore, how wise are we to allow those forces simply to flow unimpeded?
I was already fairly comfortable with the notion that the optimal way for things to unfold involved a dance combining both flow and control. But the questions of how much of each was likely to be best in various circumstances, and what the nature of the dance between them should be, remained quite unsettled in my mind. And the answers to both those questions hinged, in large measure, on that question of the trustworthiness of those uncontrolled forces.
In the several weeks that followed, this was the question that I pursued. Or rather, corresponding with those two levels of forces, there were two questions.
The first led me into the moral realm far more deeply than the unfolding inquiry had taken me thus far. â€œHow much goodness is there in human nature,â€ turned out to be the core question here. Or, â€œHow much do we just naturally unfold into the beings that we ideally should be?â€ *
And the second took me even further out of my depth â€“or breadthâ€“ and confronted me with the question: â€œWhat is the nature of the forces that govern the cosmos? To what extent do they lead things to unfold in ways that are right and good?â€ **
* These are the questions that are explored in the following chapter, â€œChapter 10: Unfinished Creatures.â€
** These are the questions that are explored in the final chapter, â€œChapter 11: Unfinished Cosmos.â€