A few days ago, I asked someone what they thought of the Amazon Rainforest burning. Filled with 10% of the world’s total animal species, home to native tribes who have retained humanity’s hunter-gatherer culture as well as plants we can harvest for medicine, and producer of so much of the world’s oxygen that it’s earned the nickname the “Lungs of the Planet”, the Amazon Rainforest is vital to the earth’s health and all those who live on it.
I believe it’s possible to discuss a person’s ideas without bringing their identity into it, so I’ll refer to this person as ‘they’ and keep their name confidential.
I thought they would respond positively because they care deeply for nature. They tend gardens, stick to a strict vegan diet, and were none too pleased about watching such a diverse ecosystem reduced to ash. Their real response shocked me.
“I don’t think we should do anything about it because this is just where the flow of the universe is at right now,” they said. “We can’t stop it from happening. There’s no point in resisting the universe.”
This reflects the Taoist approach to life.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes,” says Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese founder of Taoism. “Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
This is one of the wisest pieces of advice ever spoken — if you’re a plant and you have no free will.
But if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re a human being with some degree of free will, in which case, Lao Tzu couldn’t be more wrong.
If we never tried to will anything into existence or change the “natural flow of the universe”, think of what the world would look like today.
There would be no medicine, no schools, no tools, nothing of human invention. Not even ink and paper for Lao Tzu to have written his doctrine. And social change?
Martin Luther King would have marched alone.
In fact, he wouldn’t have marched at all. An in-flow President Lincoln would have allowed people to act as they pleased without resistance. “Emancipation what? Slavery is just the natural flow of the universe right now. Who am I to disagree?”
And what about serial killers? Although there’s a debate about whether serial killers are born or made, there’s no denying that serial killers, well, kill. A lot.
Ted Bundy raped and beat to death at least 36 women in his gruesome rampage. Probably more. Yet he’s still human, and from this philosophical perspective, he was acting in accordance with his nature, even though we judge him to be sick and twisted.
If we truly allowed ourselves to be in flow with the universe, without offering resistance or impetus to change, that would mean letting people kill with impunity.
It would also mean saying no to prescription glasses because, hey, your eyesight naturally declines. Don’t resist the flow of the universe!
Goodbye, all forms of medicine! Goodbye, shelters for victims of domestic abuse! You’re right where you need to be in the universe, under your loved one’s fist!
And do I really need to bring up the Holocaust?
Look, I’m not saying that a Taoist approach to life is all bad. In fact, it’s quite handy when you feel anxiety overwhelming you. But you know what also relieves anxiety? Doing something.
You’re not a helpless spectator to the horrors of the world. Get active. Get involved. Take responsibility for your free will and start making a difference!
It’s harder to fear the uncertainty of the future when you help create the future.
The Amazon didn’t start burning on its own. People started burning it. If this is where the flow of the universe is at, it is only because humans have directed it there. And we can direct it away.
The truth is we all float down the same river of life and we may not always choose where the river flows, but we can damn well choose what we do while we’re in the water. If someone is drowning, we shouldn’t chalk it up to “the flow of the universe” and drift on. We should take action and do our best to help them. We should choose compassion over sociopathic detachment.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with living in the moment from time to time. And some things simply can’t be changed. But it’s one thing to say, “we can’t unburn the Amazon,” and another thing entirely to sit idly by and say, “We shouldn’t prevent more from burning.”
So before you say you’re too in sync with the universe to stand up for what’s right, let me ask you this:
Are you really in flow with the universe? Or are you self-righteous about your laziness?