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Contraction pulls at that which extends too far

Weakness pulls at that which strengthens too much

Ruin pulls at that which rises too high

Loss pulls at life when you fill it with too much stuff

The lesson here is called

“The wisdom of obscurity” —

The gentle outlast the strong

The obscure outlast the obvious

This is from Jonathan Star’s translation of the Tao The Ching, verse 36. It reminds me of my studies a few years back of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction and most especially of my research on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. I put together a seminary paper comparing deconstruction with Ecclesiastes.

For both, there seem to be forces within the world that respond and react, bringing balance to imbalance, or even bringing imbalance to what is balanced. For Derrida, any idea, institution, or writing contains within it the seeds of its own deconstruction. For the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, there is no free lunch in life, everything comes at a cost, there is no true “profit” or “excess” that can be won. He begins with a question: What advantage does a person have in all one’s work? This word “advantage,” if I recall correctly, is a word that can be translated as “profit” or “excess” or “gain.” Here is the conclusion that the Teacher gives, even before he begins his own deconstruction:

I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted. (chap. 1)

A depressing thought? It would depend on our expectation of life. If we expect to wrest some “profit” from it, if we expect a return on our advantage, if this is our leading motivation, then we end only in striving to catch the elusive wind. Starting from zero, naked and helpless, and realizing that we end with zero, this puts things in perspective. Not that there is anything wrong with chasing the wind, of course, because it can be a helluva ride! However, maturity seems to bring perspective, and perspective tends to give rise to gratitude: life is viewed simply as a gift over which our sense of control is only an illusion.

Note: I snapped this photo a few months back in L.A., near Koreatown on my bike on the way to a Whole Foods store.

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