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

Published on 10 October 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

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.

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