The most impactful homily I ever heard in church came from a guest deacon at our local parish. He was a big bear of a man with a sonorous bass voice that he knew how to use to full effect. His talk, which could not have been more than ten minutes long, impressed me deeply and has influenced me for years. It wasn’t that he told me anything I didn’t know, it was that he delivered the message simply and with such unassuming power that it has never left me and I think about it almost every day. I will attempt to paraphrase what he said.
We generally start out thinking we will be the heroes of our own story and do great things. Life then becomes what happens while we had other plans. Along the way we realize that just being a human being is plenty hard enough if one wants to do it right. We grow up, get jobs, have families, acquire stuff and settle in or settle for whatever version of happiness we can find. Sometimes there is something that nags at us though. Is this it? Am I meant to do something else? Was there a mission waiting for me and I never read the memo? But by then we are stuck and go on, as Thoreau said, to lead lives of quiet desperation. Even if we understood the mission, are we up to it? Aren’t we justified in holding back since we have families and others who are counting on us to remain steady? Unfortunately, this is precisely the point at which the cost of discipleship becomes a heavy burden. Christ did not die so we could have cushy lives, but so that we could be free from the taint that had crept over things. It is right that we should take care of those for whom we have responsibility but is wrong to pass on a legacy of cowardice in the face of things we know are bad. So what do we do about it when we find out that our employer is a control fraud that is milking customers, employees and taxpayers so a few insiders can get rich at the expense of many? What do we do when we see our tax dollars used to support things we anathematize, or should? How about when we see schools teaching our kids to be willing victims and serfs in a system that will never allow them to be who they can be?
The answer is as simple as it is radical. From early on most of us are taught that we should always do our best and not worry about things we can’t control. But this is stoicism and while modern psychology loves to teach it as though it was invented at Harvard fifteen or so years ago, it is a couple of millennia old. What it shares with Christianity is that both movements grew up and became popular in the Roman Empire among the disenfranchised. Little appreciated is that they are blended historically but still different. Stoicism is about how to live well under the lash. Christianity is about how to live as though you had already died and gone to heaven. This means Christians were willing to die rather than renounce their faith whereas Stoics were always able to go along to get along. While it is still true in some places that Christians are given that terrible choice, most of us have different choices to make and the answer for us may be more like what Taoist sages recommended than what we find in the writings of Epictetus, Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. Here it is: ‘wu wei,’ or doing nothing.
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu built on what he saw as the workings of nature. For example, if your intention is to grow a plant, do what you should do. Give it the sunlight, the fertilizer and the water. Having done that, begin the non-doing by leaving the plant alone and let it grow on its own. Don’t do anything once the conditions for growing the plant are fulfilled. Otherwise, you would do more harm than good. In this instance, doing nothing is doing something. Do what is required, cut down on the superfluous. But Tao goes beyond this. Wu wei can also mean avoiding application of energy in ways that would lead to counter-productive outcomes. It is then not passive acceptance but radical non-aggression. If you are inclined to be angry and supply negativity to a situation that calls for support and acceptance, remove energy. When someone wants your money or your time for an endeavor that you see will work against what you know is right, remove energy. The Christian message here is not precisely the same as that of the stoic or that of the Taoist sage. The mission in removing energy is not to help us to be happy, well-adjusted, workaholic slaves; nor is it to make us couch potatoes. Rather, it is to help us to be poised to win the good fight before it begins, as per the great strategist Sun Tzu. So when you are struggling with what you ought to do you must first be mindful, and then consider removing energy.