Rev. Roger Fritts
January, 12, 1997
Cedar lane Unitarian Universalist Church
Bethesda, Maryland

It is late in the evening. I feel in my nose, throat and muscles the beginning of a cold. Although no cure exists, over 300 products claim to treat my symptoms. For example:

I can relieve some of my symptoms, or at least suppress them. Codeine suppresses my cough reflex. Decongestants clear my nose. Aspirin relieves my aches and pains. Like those happy people in the cold remedy advertisements, after I have medicated myself, I feel I should get on with my life. I should take care of my responsibilities. I should attend to my appointments. I should meet my commitments. The high-paced life at the end of the twentieth century does not encourage me to slow down for the cold. Therefore, if I take a day off to nurse my aches and pains, I feel guilty. With so many treatments, I get the feeling that the common cold is not an acceptable excuse to stay in bed.

Yet the reality is something else again. The effectiveness of the various medications is limited. The pills and sprays do not always make me better. At such times I need another strategy to help me cope with the common cold.

The approach I have found helpful is not a pill, but a frame of mind, a manner of being, an outlook on life. It is described in a little book called the Tao Teh Ching.

Legend records that Lao Tzu composed the book Tao Teh Ching. According to the story, Lao Tzu was a keeper of the archives of a Chinese city about 2,600 years ago. However, foreseeing the collapse of the government and the disintegration of the empire, he left for the western frontier traveling on a water buffalo. The guardian of the pass recognized Lao Tzu and insisted that he write down his philosophy of life before traveling farther. Lao Tzu committed his ideas to writing, departed into the country, and no one ever heard of him again.

In fact, scholars believe that the Tao Teh Ching is not the writing of one person. Instead the book is a gathering of ideas from many early Taoist writings. Only 5,000 words, it is the shortest of all the scriptures of the great world religions, concise and to the point.

As an approach for dealing with the common cold, Tao Teh Ching is radically different from the ethic found in the modern American advertisements for cold medicines.

The opening passage of the Tao Teh Ching says:

The Tao that can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The Tao is a state of harmony instead of a powerful God ruling over the earth. The religious issues raised by the belief in an all-powerful God or a supernatural power are not a major part of Chinese culture. This lack of a deity helps explain why no exact equivalent exists in the Chinese language for the English word religion. The Tao Teh Ching is a practical gathering of human wisdom designed to help people to live the best possible life. Some scholars translate the word Tao as the spirit of life. Tao is the vital principle, the inner harmony, the underlying substance, the natural connection of all life forms.

If the examination of the Tao starts as metaphysics, exploring the problem, What is ultimate reality? it ends as ethics, exploring the problem, How may we live in harmony with ultimate reality? In the Tao Teh Ching it is written:

The way of Tao is not to contend and yet
To be able to conquer.
Nature does not have to insist,
[The wind] Can blow for only half a morning,
Rain for only half a day,
And what are these winds and rains but natural?
If nature does not have to insist,
Why should people?
Leave all things to take their natural course, and do not interfere.

To live in harmony with the Tao, human beings must copy the pattern of nature. Be genuinely ourselves, be sincere, like an animal or a plant. A favorite symbol is the uncarved block of wood, which is simply what it is. Another symbol is the flow of water through a valley.

Ancient Chinese philosophers distinguished between an active and a passive principle in all things, the yang and the yin. A twentieth-century American prayer makes the same distinction in different words.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The yang is all the things that I can change. In the case of the common cold, yang activity is manifest in the cold remedies I keep in my medicine cabinet.

On the other hand, the yin is serenity of accepting the things I cannot change. Taoism is all about cultivating the serenity to accept things I cannot change and developing the wisdom to recognize the things I cannot change. Being an educated American, the yang side of me is well developed. To treat a cold I read Consumers Reports and stock my medicine cabinet. However, my yin side can use help. I am less good at accepting the things I cannot change. To encourage the growth of my yin side, I study the Tao Teh Ching.

A word that comes to my mind as I read the Tao Teh Ching is detachment. I set goals for myself, goals about school or work or family. However, I do not achieve all those goals. I may not be as effective in social action as I wish. I may not do as much research for a sermon as I intended. I may not be as effective in offering guidance at a committee meeting as I want to be. Outside my work I may not have as close a relationship as I wished with my friends. I may not have the concentration to exercise. If I do not achieve my goals, I can feel hurt, I can feel pain, I can feel angry, upset or depressed.

The Tao Teh Ching suggests that detachment is essential for a fulfilling human life. It suggests that I detach myself from desires and not be greedy for power, status, or money. Furthermore, the Tao Teh Ching advises that I accept others and myself as imperfect. It suggests that I try not to become overwhelmed when I am late for an appointment or when I make a dent in the car. The Tao Teh Ching suggests that a healthy life depends on my ability to achieve some degree of relaxed detachment. Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail, says the Taoist. In the words of a modern saying, "Don't just do some thing; stand there."

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Some actions I can and should take. However, there is so much I do not control. Taoism encourages me to cultivate my inner self. It encourages me to accept my limits, detach from my striving, and develop within me a feeling of joy for a world that is at my own doorstep.

Living on the edge of Washington's Beltway, I can benefit from this approach. Sometimes I am in too much hurry and I remind myself of the man who expected to hear an egg crow at daybreak. I forget and need to remind myself that some times letting things happen is better than trying to make things happen.

I cultivate this detachment, not in every situation, but often. I remind myself of my limits. I try to let go and not to take my work too seriously, or myself too seriously.

Taoism was popular among the common people of China and had a major impact on Chinese culture. However, following their own advice, the Taoists were not strong when it came to building a religious organization. In past centuries they could not match the organizational skills of Confucius's followers. In this century they were no match for the missionary enthusiasm of Karl Marx's followers. So today, as an established religion in China, Taoism is almost dead.

However, Taoism never set out to be an established religion. It called for tranquility not dogmatism. Taoism never intended to construct temples or hold pledge drives. It addressed people, not groups.

. . . I try to remember the Tao.

I try to obtain a larger perspective. I try to cast off my surface facade. I try to drift and feel at one with the flow of the natural world. I ask myself, What shall it profit me to struggle, if by so doing I lose my own soul?

Taoism reminds me that I sometimes keep busy to cover up my anxiety. In my activity I sometimes run from myself. I gain a sense of importance by being in a hurry, as though something is going on when I am engaged in exerting myself. Telling people how hard I work, becomes a defense, as though a crowded life is proof of my worth as a human being.

To know and accept the things I cannot change requires a feeling of inner harmony with nature, a feeling of being in relationship with the whole. I work to remember to stop frequently in life to enjoy the view while I climb the mountain. In the words of one student of Taoism:

Awareness often means the capacity not to act. To be creatively idle and silent which is more difficult for most people than to do something. To be still requires a strong sense of personal identity and an intimate relationship with enduring values. It is an expression of the alive, integrating self, which is involved in BEING more than DOING.

The cold and flu season are on us. Illness magnifies every problem. The children are too raucous. Food is bland. War seems more likely. Snowstorms prowl on the skyline. The pillow is too hard. The earth is dim, drab, and pointless. Even Jay Leno seems vulgar.

However, the common cold may be good for me. Last fall I contracted a cold. For a day I neglected letters, phone calls and e-mail. I left the newspaper on the porch. Sitting in bed, I watched a beam of sunlight come through the window and strike the blanket. Outside, trees blew in the wind. I noticed the light, the birds, the rhythm of the floating clouds. I became aware of the Tao, the spirit of life that daily moves around us and within us.

So I decline to curse the common cold. This simple illness is a message from the Tao. It says, Slow down. Be calm. I am missing seeing the world. Life exists in a snow flake.

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