Today we are looking at the third chapter in Parker Palmer’s book the Active Life, “Active Life”: The Shadow Side. The first two chapters laid out preliminary thoughts regarding the contemplative life and the active life. Each of the final six chapters begins with a piece of ancient wisdom, followed by Palmer’s reflections. Today we are looking at a piece by the Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher living in the fourth century, B.C.E. It is called, “Active Life.” Palmer is using a portion of a version translated by Thomas Merton and John C. H. Wu (to which Palmer has made some gender inclusive edits.) Here is the translation. Following it is a video of the complete work as Merton presented it:
Active Life by Chuang Tzu
If an expert does not have some problem to vex him, he is unhappy!
If a philosopher’s teaching is never attacked, she pines away!
If critics have no one on whom to exercise their spites, they are unhappy.
All such people are prisoners in the world of objects.
He who wants followers, seeks political power.
She who wants reputation, holds an office.
The strong man looks for weights to lift.
The brave woman looks for an emergency in which she can show bravery.
The swordsman wants a battle in which he can swing his sword.
People past their prime prefer a dignified retirement, in which they may seem profound.
People experienced in law seek difficult cases to extend the application of laws.
Liturgists and musicians like festivals in which they parade their ceremonious talents.
The benevolent, the dutiful, are always looking for chances to display virtue.
Where would the gardener be if there were no more weeds?
What would become of business without a market of fools?
Where would the masses be if there were no pretext for getting jammed together and making noise?
What would become of labor if there were no superfluous objects to be make?
Produce! Get results! Make money! Make friends! Make changes!
Or you will die of despair.
Distilling the critique of the poem down to one sentence, Palmer writes: “Too much of our action is really reacation.” He says,
“Such ‘doing’ does not flow from free and independent hearts, he says, but depends on external provocation. It does not come from our sense of who we are and what we want to do, but from our anxious reading of how others define us and of what the world demands. When we react this way we do not act humanly; we become cogs in a machine whose every move is forced by what is happening elsewhere in the interlocked system of cogs. ‘All such people are prisoners in the word of objects.” (39)
We tend to seek situations and manipulate the world into scenes that showcase our skill. The world and the people in it become objects we use as a means for getting praise and finding meaning. It makes us feel alive. And it is addictive.
At root, a professional is one who makes a profession of faith – faith in something larger and wiser than his or her own powers. The true professional is the opposite of someone who makes objects of other people by creating dependencies. Instead, the true professional is a person whose action points beyond his or her self to the underlying reality, that hidden wholeness, on which we all can rely. (44)
This is the positive side of the professional but there is a dark side as well. In one passage Palmer asks, “What meaning would life have for some mental health professionals if there were not people who depended on their help?” (43) Should the health professional actually be successful in increasing mental health, demand for her expertise would diminish, and therefore her identity. To a hammer, everything looks like nail, and there must be nails if the hammer is to have meaning. Only if you see yourself as something more than a hammer do you have the freedom to hammer nails as needed but then to engage in other action as circumstances change without loss of identity.
Another challenge the reactive life presents is the tendency to create self-fulfilling prophecies. “Action based on false beliefs has the power to bring those falsehoods into being.” (45) Someone addicted to bravery seeks out and creates circumstances were bravery is required. The fighter seeks out and creates conflicts where fighting is needed. The helper seeks out and creates situations where help is needed. We tend to shape the world to fit our professional skill, reinforcing our identity, creating a world where more peril, conflict, and need exists than need be.
Palmer warns that “… ‘goodness’ that is driven primarily by the actor’s needs is unlikely to be good at all. Such goodness is often imposed on people who have no desire for it, people who become objects of the actor’s self-serving charity.” (47) As someone who has been a student of economic development for most of my adult life, I can’t say strongly enough how important this statement is and how resistant so much of the church is to hearing these words.
I remember one pastor telling how his church would prepare Christmas dinners and buy presents to deliver, in person, to families who in lived in a Section 8 housing complex. What began to dawn on him was that fathers were never home when the meals and gifts were delivered. Why? The fathers slipped out the backdoor in humiliation about not being able to provide for their household. The program was revised. The church still prepared meals but recipient parents came to the church to collect a meal for a minimal fee and then brought the meal home to their families as providers of the feast. Gifts were bought by the church, but parents came to a store where, for a minimal fee, they could select toys to bring home to their children. Until we escape the lie that what makes us feel helpful is always helpful we are caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy where our “help” never really helps, wounding people in need, while simultaneously generating more opportunity for us to feel helpful to people who are trapped in need, in part due to our own comfortable illusions.
Palmer closes the chapter with an interesting reflection on the way we use the verb “make.” We make money, make friends, make changes, make time, make love, make peace, make a deal, make our way, make things right, make meaning, make a living and … the all-inclusive … make “it.” (49) We see ourselves as fabricators of everything around us, including things over which we clearly have no control. He says, “We seem to regard much of the world as raw material that waits passively to be given shape by our own designs and energies …” (49) While there is no doubt that part of what we do as humans is fabricate, it is also true that we receive from the world things over which we have no control, from a world that is dynamic and shapes us. It is our false belief that we are in control, or ought to be in control, that leads to frenetic behavior and objectification of the world and others.
I thought one of Palmer’s most important lines was, “True despair is the failure to learn before we die that the water eventually closes up over everything, that we never manage to leave the indelible marks of our dreams.” (51) I’m reminded of Woody Allen saying, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” We have immortality in God, not through our work. Attempting to achieve immortality through work is a form of idolatry. It is an illusion. But when we embrace this limitation, we are freer to both receive what has been given and to participate in the transformation our physical and social world into more useful forms with joy and celebration, to be more alive in our work.
In what ways have you felt yourself life driven by reaction? Do you sometimes feel objectfied by others? In what ways do you think we might objectify others?
Can you recall instances of creating self-fulfilling prophecies in your own life or the life of others? What were the consequences?
How does Palmer's observation that "water eventually closes up over everything" make you feel? Does it feel more threatening or freeing? Why?