Of Worms and Wisdom

I consulted the oracle recently. I mean, why not? The times we find ourselves in are as incomprehensible as they are disheartening for some of us at least, and we can only have faith in Bob Dylan’s vision that the times are indeed a-changin’.

My oracle of choice is the I Ching, the 3000-year-old Chinese Book of Changes. To be clear, I am not a scholar of Chinese literature, and my knowledge concerning the I Ching is—being charitable to myself—superficial. Nevertheless, part of the charm of the I Ching is that its insight and richness of interpretation are accessible to anyone with the power to imagine, scholars and skimmers alike.

I approached the oracle with a vague question at heart of how to make sense of this moment in my life when it seems that much of what I have held dear as social progress for over sixty years of my lifetime is being systematically torn apart.

The I Ching deals in images; answers are in the realm of the observer. What the I Ching “means” rests with how its images are interpreted. Thus, the interpretation says much about the observer beyond any objective truth supplied by the image itself and any textual explanation served up in the Book.

My post-Christmas consultation yielded two randomly-generated images (hexagrams). The first, at first, seemed only to mirror my malaise. It was Ku, the image of decay. The Chinese character ku, the translator says, represents “a bowl in whose contents worms are breeding.” Yes, I get the picture. In the United States today, we find ourselves mired in a bowl of worms.

Yet, the hexagram also has a hopeful interpretation, which is that what has been spoiled through the indifference of men and women in the face of the inertia of those in positions of political power can be made good again through work toward improving conditions. It is not immutable fate that has brought us into this worm-ridden bowl, but rather, the “abuse of human freedom.” Ultimate success depends on deliberation: “Decisiveness and energy must take the place of inertia and indifference.” Wrapped within the image is the idea that every end may be followed by a new beginning.

A few days later, I checked in with the ancient oracle, which this time rewarded me the hexagram Fêng, or Abundance. The image is one of greatness and abundance—a period of advanced civilization—produced by clarity amidst movement. Fêng is an image of arousing thunder outside and a flame of clarity within. Yet, a condition of abundance is extraordinary and cannot be maintained permanently. The essential thing is, at heart, to believe in the power of truth.

The image here does not seem to be a reflection of the times as they are. It seems instead to be a vision of times as they may yet again be. It is an image of abundance with an asterisk, for amidst the energy of abundance is the knowledge that times of abundance are often brief. To press the sustain pedal on the chord of those times requires a kind of joy coupled with wisdom.

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