The kids had a hard time doing their chores today, and I wondered to myself how best to help them grasp that whether work is miserable or pleasant is usually a matter of perspective. It occurred to me that Lao Tzu's enigmatic statement "work is done, then forgotten/that way it lasts forever" might also be interpreted as a comment on the one thing that seemed to be making the kids so unhappy: drama.
Only when we remove the drama from things do we see them objectively. As I listened to the kids complain about the relative fairness of their tasks, I heard them speak about everything except the task at hand. I was talking about paying attention to detail. They were talking about the personal dramas and smoldering injustices that animate their lives.
And I realized that this is how my stories and complaints would sound to Lao Tzu.
The Tao Te Ching is what truth looks like when you drain away the drama from things, when there is nothing at stake and our only concern is that which lies before us.
We love drama. At night, when we lie down and think happy thoughts on the way off to sleep, our waking dreams begin with bad people punished and good people rewarded. We imagine stories of love and justice, starring ourselves and our families, and we bask in that sweet someday of redemption and prosperity. All maya, samsara, illusion. Drama.
Drama teaches us what it is to be alive. War, sports, romance, sex, office politics -- all drama. The structure never changes and the plots are always the same. Why is it that only the faces change? Because we are all participating in the same experiment.
For all our overly dramatic fussing about it, truth has very little to do with the messy business of being alive. Truth doesn't care about our dramas or our stories, doesn't care about who-wins-what, and certainly offers no opinion on who deserves anything. The Tao says that darkness and light create each other, that empty and full define each other. It doesn't pin a merit badge on one and cast down its mate.
Yet so entranced are we by our dramas that when you tell some people about the Tao, many will say "Well what good is that?" It is frustrating to them, because the Tao offers neither reward nor punishment. One does not praise it in hope of heaven, nor ape it for fear of hell. To those enmeshed by the drama of being alive, who imagine that God must think as they do, such a worldview is useless, meaningless. To them, all meaning is found in drama. No wonder they are always unhappy.
When confronted with this truth, it is quite natural to turn away. I have done it many times, and will do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and so on. Human beings are just more comfortable in the belief that all meaning arises from stories, and when our clerics say that the Tao is the way of apathy and urge us to turn toward compassion, we tend to shrug our shoulders almost practically and get back in line. "You can't just lie down and die," they say, as if that were the choice.
Sages have another way. They do nothing and leave nothing undone. This is the way of the Tao, but it's also the easiest way I know to clean house.