Beyond the Easy Answers

In hard times, I reflect on Chapter 20 of the Tao te Ching. In uncertain times, fluidity brings about hope.

Beyond the Easy Answers
"HKCL CWB 香港中央圖書館 Hong Kong Central Library exhibition hall 道教文化文物展覽 Chinese Taoism culture March 2019 SSG 62" by HAPODAY J0303 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Chapter 20 of the Tao

How much difference between yes and no?
What difference between good and bad?

What the people fear
must be feared.
O desolation!
Not yet, not yet has it reached its limit!

Everybody's cheerful,
cheerful as if at a party,
or climbing a tower in springtime.
And here I sit unmoved,
clueless, like a child,
a baby too young to smile.

Forlorn, forlorn.
Like a homeless person.
Most people have plenty.
I'm the one that's poor,
a fool right through.

Ignorant, ignorant.
Most people are so bright.
I'm the one that's dull.
Most people are so keen.
I don't have the answers.
Oh, I'm desolate, at sea,
adrift without harbor.

Everybody has something to do.
I'm the clumsy one, out of place.
I'm the different one,
for my food
is the milk of the mother.

In this chapter (beautifully adapted by Ursula K. Le Guin), the Tao te Ching tells us a familiar story. "Look," the mythic author Lao Tzu seems to say, "look at all the certainty around me! Oh, how am I not as certain as them?" There's a sense of pain invoked here, both at the certainty inhabiting everyone else, and at Lao Tzu's own separateness. I find it distinctly relatable.

Often, I have desired to see the world as simply as do others around me: to be as perfectly convinced of right and wrong. My own meter of truth and certainty has fluctuated wildly from my teenage years to now, so much so that one wouldn't be surprised to find my only source of certainty in uncertainty itself!

But, let us explore where Lao Tzu goes in chapter 20.

Scholars of the Tao te Ching have questioned the time period at which this section was written, and I think we can see why. The first and last stanzas read very differently from the middle ones (and this chapter reads differently from many other sections in the Tao). There is a sharp personality at work, here: a pain at the self-realization of one's distance from the ordinary folk.

Yet, there is something potent about those closing lines: "for my food is the milk of the mother." The author seems to come through this period of intensity and realize that their difference is itself because of their connection to some larger reality, to the mother from which we all spring: the cosmos itself.

When I see people fighting online, it reminds me of the line "everybody has something to do." Most people are so certain of their brightness and rightness: most people are certain they have the right answer. I'm not. Maybe they shouldn't be, either.

What do you feel when you look at the news? What experience is cultivated in your heart as you take in not just the dramatic trauma of war and famine, but the localized horrors of creeping autocracy? If you're anything like the people posting on my social media feed, you're exhausted and upset. But, when we act from a place that is so inherently unsteady, we lose our ability to cultivate change in the world.

When you allow someone else dictate your emotional response, you surrender to their worldview.

When the world becomes simple, and we have all the answers, maybe that's when we're the farthest from reality.

What I do know is that balance is hard to find. There are powers moving continents, and we are arrayed against them like drops of water. Yet, perhaps that is also a good thing. For water flows around the certainty of land, permeates it, lubricates its passing. Perhaps it is better to be fluid in these times of crisis than to be certain; better to be balanced than aggressive, hopeful rather than dour.

What people fear must be feared - there cannot be any other way. But, perhaps, we can learn to flow with the tide of that fear rather than be swallowed by its motion. And maybe, by holding that balance, we will find a way to bring the change we wish to see in the world.

💡Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month! You can also support me by using this affiliate link to sign up for, the best audiobook platform around!

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