I never met Lao Tzu. Partly, that is because he’s been dead for centuries (death has a way of doing that). Still, even if he was around today, I do not think he would want to talk to me.
A story tells of how Lao Tzu, in his old age, took what little he had, loaded his belongings atop a water buffalo, and made his way out of the city, seeking solitude elsewhere. A guard at the city limits sensed that Lao Tzu was profoundly at peace with himself, so the guard handed him some paper and pressed the old man to share with him his teachings. Lao Tzu eventually did, scribbling down what has since become the foundational text of Daoism.
That text, translated as “The Way and Its Power,” is an inconsistent hodgepodge of statements. Nevertheless, Lao Tzu clearly believed in his mystical nonsense. This sense of conviction does not make him exceptional, since everyone who has beliefs believes in them. Even the degree of his sense conviction is nothing remarkable, since many people hold their beliefs very strongly. What is remarkable and exceptional about Lao Tzu is that he refused to share (much less preach) those beliefs.
He was like a Socrates who shut up.
Like Socrates, Lao Tzu likely thought that most of the people around him were fools. According to Lao Tzu, an animistic force courses through all events, and wisdom consists in detecting and eventually mastering its flow. Or something like that. Many, myself included, see no good reason or evidence to believe this. So, I can only imagine how annoying it must have been for Lao Tzu to live among us.
I suppose an equivalent would be if everyone except me were cloud-blind. When I would go out and say: “Cloudy day, ain’t it?”, all I would get in return would be confused stares. I might use my knowledge of the clouds to predict the rain or the moods of certain folk, but no one would have clue what in the world I am talking about. I suppose that, under the sustained strain of such incomprehension, I too might want to pack my things in a U-Haul (our modern-day water buffalo) and head out to a remote cottage.
Yet, this exile would mean giving up Indian food, and nothing will ever make me give up Indian food.
So, more modestly, another option would be to continue living among others and just accept my situation. Others might regard me as delusional, but their attitudes would not alter the fact that, from a first-person vantage (i.e., mine), things just look that way. Converting others might perhaps attenuate this sense of isolation, but it surely would not render my view more true. Reality is not determined by vote.
Coming to grips with this involves a distinctive learning curve. Some pester me at my doorstep with free lessons about how to see the ghosts which, unbeknownst to me, have been incessantly flying in and out of my home since childhood. Drunk on their own righteousness, these militant ghost-busters see it as their business to raise my ghost-consciousness. If I cannot (or refuse to) do that, then that just goes to show to what extent I am evil or have been “mystified.” Predictably, the self-appointed do-gooders get turned away from most doorsteps. Some respond to this rejection by doubling-up on the missionary rhetoric and resorting to guerrilla tactics.
We can all see the clouds. Yet, were I alone in seeing clouds, I would not let obsession for peer corroboration overtake me. Neither did Lao Tzu. The tragic part is that it ostensibly took 80 years or so for Lao Tzu to attain this peace of mind. His loss. In any event, the tranquil older version of Lao Tzu does not strike me as the type who would strike me, much less fly a plane into a building. It’s too bad he left, since he would have made a great neighbor.
Lao Tzu would not have wanted to talk to me, but since the cryptic statements that he jotted down at the city limits eventually garnered a following, he might want to chat today with the like-minded people that were unavailable at the time. This convergence of views might well be a case of replicating memes that have no bearing on anything beyond themselves—reality is still not determined by vote. But, if it enables pleasant conversation, then that is a happy thought.
Prompted by the happy thought of this conversation (and the tragic realization that it is historically impossible), one might be tempted to say that Lao Tzu should have explicated his vision of the world much earlier, so as to generate some conversation partners within his lifetime. Yet, what if the communication of some idea(s) just cannot be squeezed into one’s lifetime—or communicated at all, no matter how many centuries are added?
Possible courses of action include employing guerrilla tactics or peacefully coming to terms with the lone possession of truth. Lao Tzu was right to take the latter course, but he was wrong to think that it requires exile.
There is no valid inference from “I do not want to preach” to “I do not want to live among others.”