I’ve been male my entire life, and there are things you get used to. Like knowing that your nipples just aren’t that exciting to anybody. Or the smell of old garlic mashed potatoes in your three-day growth of beard.
Or the fact that you project your male identity onto anything that doesn’t already have a gender. Like words.
Let me explain.
Some years ago I received as a gift a pocket book edition of the Tao Te Ching. I had, of course, come across the text before and not really grokked it. As with most complex and mind-bending new (actually very old) ideas, it had to sit on an end table for a long time, waiting for me to catch up to it. A few weeks ago, that time arrived. I was at a “place in my life” where I could let in the concept of not doing, not attaching. The irony is, of course, that one does not actually grok the Tao. The moment you grok it, you lose it. It’s all about consciousness without action. Or something.
This translation of the Tao is by Stephen Mitchell. As he mentions in his introduction, “The reader will notice that in the many passages where Lao-tzu describes the Master, I have used the pronoun she at least as often as he.”
Indeed he did. And it threw me for a very big loop. I found that my whole conditioning as a male was to think myself into the absorption of a philosophical teaching. And in so doing, to welcome, verily to expect that the wisdom being related would, naturally, be directed at me. And even though the written word is directed at a collective, that collective I always pictured as a bunch of me’s. A bunch of men. When Mitchell transposed the genres on the teachings, I found I could not take them in as easily. I had to stop and go back, try to shoehorn-in the idea that the Tao Master in a certain passage was female.
Here’s an example of Mitchell’s ‘male’ translation:
Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.
Wow. Yes. Deep. I get it. I am that Master. We are all that Master. But then Mitchell switches it up:
[The Master] teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess, acts but does not expect.
When her work is done she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
And I got pulled out of the learning process! Because I kept picturing a third-party “she” sitting on a lotus pad implementing the practice. Damn it, I could not project myself into the concept as easily as when he wrote he. And I rather shamefully must admit that in order to better understand the information, I sometimes resorted to willing the male pronoun into the sentence in order to make it more accessible to me.
Why was I so resistant to making the inner cognitive leap from he to she? That, like much of the Tao, is mysterious and difficult to quantify at this writing, but I am grateful to Mister Mitchell for putting this interesting disconnect on my radar. What I am left with is what it must be like for you women. Living in a world with a bunch of us guys who just assume, unless otherwise noted, that it’s all about us.
I apologize, however feebly, and my hope is that this awkward admission of old conditioning will be counted in my favor. And if my current choice of reading is any indication, I am at least making a stab at enlightenment.
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Tao Te Ching translation by Stephen Mitchell, copyright 1988, Harper Collins.