“That which contracts has surely expanded.
That which grows weak has surely been strong.
That which fades has surely been bright…”Tao te Ching, Translation & Commentary by Charles Johnson
I can’t be sure of the original intent for the above quote, but—for me—it certainly brought death to mind. It represents dying in a very useful (and lacking a more descriptive word) better way.
The passage resembles other useful analogies, or lines of thought, that I have used to try and formulate reasonable thoughts about people dying (despite how ridiculous that goal seems to be!). It can also be used to come to terms with the way in which life’s happenings, or relationships, come and go.
Reading the quote, one can easily determine that something has expanded and become bright. This is reference a previous state, which is part of a some whole, that this ‘thing’ expanded from. In the Tao te Ching this could be the Tao, or the One.
So, immediately I see a representation of something not leaving, as if it were stolen, but returning, like it was given back. Something (or someone) is returning back to something larger than themselves, not leaving the world cold.
It was easy for me to bring the popular animated movie The Lion King to mind. It has a ‘circle of life’ feel to it.
There is another analogy, that I read about in Siddartha by Herman Hesse, that talks about the connectedness of life in this way. Life is like the cycle of the river. The river, and the water, is hear and now in the form a murmuring stream. However, it was in the mountains earlier. It will continue downstream on whatever path it is given. Eventually, it will return to the ocean. The cycle repeats.
In the book, the main character comes to this understanding at a moment of deep dissatisfaction. He is saved by the eternal sound, the process of the river. There is the past, future and present, but the character can only be here—in the present.
We are here, we are going there, and will one day return. We all return to the One (ocean, the whole, Tao). Our life has sound and motion. There are not any stopping points in this cycle. A person pushes upon existence and they remain forever a part of existence, in one magnitude or another. As they remain in existence they are either expanding or contracting. Through out life many people finds ways to expand, this can be called progress, and others are content with contraction.
The tricky thing about expansion, and progress, is that for people it is only seen over the duration of a lifetime. Our lives expand, and other’s lives expand, only to contract and grow weak in the end. That’s a difficult thought, but let’s consider the alternative. People could be compared to Gods if they lived forever, and in a perpetual state of expansion.
Despite how uneasy people feel about this, there is a powerful story-myth about how Gods feel that live forever: Gods envy men because man is mortal.
Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art, quotes William Blake saying, “Eternity is in love with the creations of time.” To Pressfield that means the higher beings (Gods, angles, etc.) are enthused by our creations as we exist in the sphere of time. The growth, progress, creations, expansion, and light is what the Gods are impressed by because we only exist in a frame of time.
So, despite the gut wrenching feeling of loss, and thoughts of more time, the most important part of what makes life, expansion, progress, and light so special is that it comes to an end. It shrinks, grows weak, and contracts. People bring forth progress, creation, and impact through their expansion from Existence (I use Existence here as meaning the unknown forces that brought about the world). Just like the rivers, floods, and streams shape the land, other people shape our lives. When a river runs dry, the banks don’t disappear, and the memories of the water are not erased. The scars are left on the landscape. People don’t get over a loss, they learn to live with it, and I wish I remembered where I heard that because it has stuck with me.
To be unprepared for the death of a loved one is normal, but to deny the nature of existence, and undeniable (but grossly overlooked) fact that tomorrow is not guaranteed seems ludicrous. If a person pins their emotions against time and the nature of existence they are surely going to lose.
In the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, one of the Cheyenne’s (Native Americans) death songs is translated into;
“Nothing lives long, only the Earth and the mountains”
This echoes the acceptance of time. It also appears to draw it’s wisdom from more powerful objects (mountains, planets). I need to give credit to another group of people, the Stoics, from whom I have been borrowing the meaning of the word nature from. The Stoics used the word, and phrase ‘living in accordance with nature’, to construct a way of living in the world that took in to account the lack of control that people really have in their lives 1. Both of these peoples build the foundations for the wisdom that death can be handled with.
The words contract, weak, and fade that are used in the Tao te Ching passage all seem to reference a diminishing resource. However, the perspective that their loss gives rise to someone’s own expansion is still on the table. “More than one culture,” says David K. Reynolds, “emphasizes the possibilities of maturing through suffering […] It is the response to grief that enables us to grow. To survive a loss in every positive sense is to have made a crucial step toward growth as a human being […] an important step toward preparing one’s self for living fully now and for losing everything ultimately in death.”2.
I am under no impression that these viewpoints on death are original. However, the harkening back to a fresh mix of perspectives, especially in a time of grief, can hopefully provide strength.
I hope you enjoyed reading my post and if you’re interesting in more thoughts and ideas I would suggest checking out more of the Important Things posts.
- What does ‘living in accordance with nature’ actually mean? By Michel Daw
- Constructive Living by David K. Reynolds