Tornados, Typhoons, and Straw Dogs: Giving Thanks With Some Thinking

Tornados, Typhoons, and Straw Dogs: Giving Thanks With Some Thinking November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving American style. The day declared a national holiday for the purpose of giving thanks. Despite the best efforts of those of a theocratic bent, who or what to thank remains open to interpretation.

My thanks goes to the universe that just keeps cranking out good things. As the fifth chapter of the Daodejing puts it,


The space between

sky and earth is empty,

like a bellows, moving


and moving, and

out comes more.

That’s something to be thankful for. Yet problems begin when all of that “more” between earth and sky begins to get divvied up. And, Thanksgiving being a national holiday, I can’t help thinking of the portion of the universe’s “more” taken by this particular nation and how that “more” is divvied up within our borders. It its harsh realism the Daodejing says,

The universe is neither

“good” nor “evil” outside

of human standards.


The universe treats all things

like so many straw dogs.


Recent survivors of various weather-related calamities might agree with that. Then there are these next lines:


Earthly rulers treat people

like so many straw dogs.

Well, maybe in the China of 400 BCE rulers treated people like so many straw dogs, but here in the US . . .  Oh, wait. There was that government shutdown. There is that sequestration. There is that surveillance. Those drones. Oh, and then there’s work on Thanksgiving. And Black Friday. Rising poverty. Rising hunger. Straw dogs.

For Daoists, the answer is clear: the universe itself has no morality—it is neither good nor evil, and governments almost inevitably act in self-interest without regard to the greater good. It’s not what we learn in school, but evidence indicates another story.

I lost my childhood faith for the “big guy in the sky” when I began to suspect the moral calculus of the universe. When I began to suspect that “good” and “evil” are thoughts only in the human mind.

Does “god,” or does “god” not, decide who gets the cookies? And what is the basis for that judgement? Nation of birth? Social class? Skin tone? Religious affiliation?

Is it a moral act to thank such of deity for choosing me? Or my nation? My social class? My skin tone?

It’s not that I’m not thankful. But I’m not thankful to a deity that would put one child in Switzerland and another in Somalia. Such a deity does not deserve thanks, however mysterious “his” ways might be. And a deity that merely reflects the workings of the bellows of the universe? What’s the point?

Government? Yes, I grew up with those cardboard Pilgrims with their very white faces taped to the classroom windows. I understand what I was supposed to take away. Am I thankful to a government that protects the rapacious while ignoring the basic humanity of most of its citizens? Not so much.

Where might the thanks go? To luck? To fortune? To randomness? To that bellows that just keeps pumping?

Perhaps, finally, all we can do is watch and try as hard as we may to resist cynicism and complicity with the powers of what we human beings view as evil.

Here’s the advice to the Daoist:

Take care of what

is within yourself;


the outside will never

stop moving

and moving.

Thankfulness in the face of what we human beings call good and evil must serve as a reminder to think through who and what is dividing up the blessings. Yes, tornados and typhoons sweep away both the good and the bad. The universe treats us all like so many straw dogs. We find ourselves enmeshed in systems of oppression. Our choice is our work against those systems, and how we treat each other.

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