29 “If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change”

Posted on October 10, 2011 by

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These words are spoken by young aristocrat Tancredi – in the novel The  Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa. These words are loaded with decadence, cynicism,  resignation, and even despair. Change is self-defeating – it only leads to renewed  stasis.

These words are quoted endlessly, so at the end of a desultory diplomatic  negotiating round, after a tactical struggle under the rule: “nothing is agreed  until everything is agreed”.

At the other end of the world, four hundred years ago, the Japanese  swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was saying just about the same thing: “Among the important elements of this science  [On footwork] is what is called complementary stepping; this is essential.  Complementary stepping means that you do not move one foot alone. When you  slash, when you pull back, and even when you parry, you step  right-left-right-left, with complementary steps. Be very sure not to step with  one foot alone.”[1]

Come to think of it – it makes perfect sense. If you are in an optimal equilibrium,  well balanced on your two feet, to achieve a different equilibrium, you need to  move both feet. For, if by moving  just one foot one could improve the equilibrium, one would be badly positioned to begin with. By moving one foot only, on the other hand, one only would destroy  the original equilibrium. If we want things to stay as they are, everything  will have to change.

Note the essential difference in outlook, however. Here change is the  source of new equilibrium and opportunity. Change is forward looking and  dynamic – and creative. This reflects the Daoist worldview – proper equilibrium  of yin and yang generates qi. Qi is “vital energy” and “breath of life”,  and inevitably linked to proper balance of yin  and yang[2].

The  stiff and strong

Are Death’s companions

The soft and weak

Are life’s companions.

Therefore,

The strongest armies do not  conquer,

The greatest trees are cut  down.

The strong and great sink  down

The soft and weak rise up.

Daode jing (Ch. 76)

Now I’m not writing this to give a lecturette on Oriental philosophy – but to  point to that qi got missing in  translation. Everyone in the West knows about yin and yang – what about  the resulting qi? So engrained is our  dualistic conceptual framework – we don’t even realise that a most important  element is missing.

When speaking to the “other”, and particularly when preaching, rather than  listening to the “other” (as in a “command-and control” top-down diplomatic  structure) we may create huge difficulties in communication by eliding the “other’s”  worldview to fit our mental framework.

Which reminds me of my 1972 visit to Ifakara in Tanzania’s deep south,  where Mao Zedong’s were then building the Tazara Railway meant to link Tanzania  and Zambia. One of the Chinese workers has set upon himself to teach local  workers from Mao’s Red Book. He stood, waving the booklet, while the workers  rested lazily under a huge mango tree. At a distance, I watched the scene, standing next to a Swiss Franciscan monk. He assured me: “Chinese will never  make inroads here, for the Chinese have all come without their women. Africans just  can’t comprehend living without women.” I respectfully nodded in agreement, stealing  a look at his cassock.


[1]           Miyamoto  MUSASHI (1993): The book of five rings.  Shambala, Boston.

[2]           James  MILLER (2003); Daoism. A short  introduction. One World. Oxford.