The Soft Survive

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Other conquered people accomplish similar feats. A few weeks after Bali, I attended the annual Indigenous People’s Day intertribal powwow in Berkeley.  The sun shone, the air was warm. Alternating groups of men, women, children, and then everyone together danced in a one-block grassy space, with drumming, chanting and occasional short speeches of welcome. Some wore elaborate traditional costumes; others were in jeans.

Craftspeople sold art, clothes, and food in booths around the outside of the dance.  Most people displayed vibrant energy and beautiful smiles. It was a lovely day.

What struck me most was how many of the Native Americans looked African.  Teenaged black girls danced Native steps in flowing orange dresses. These weren’t people playing at being Indians. They had been absorbed into the Native nations, who integrated people and positive aspects of other cultures into their own, and kept going.

Their lives are difficult; money a constant struggle, but they stayed up. Listening to people’s conversations, I heard men talking of enjoying their granddaughters’ soccer games, and women discussing the exercises they were doing to keep healthy. Young adults talked about their college plans. They had somehow incorporated European and African cultures to create something that is undeniably their own. The inspiring scene reminded me of hip-hop culture, which unites youth all over the world by reclaiming pieces of the dominant culture and creating something new with it.

Lao-Tzu says the soft and weak prevail over the hard and strong.  Now, in ordinary terms the Native Americans are anything but “weak.” Just to keep living in their situation takes tremendous personal strength, and not all of them make it. Keeping the culture alive must take constant effort. Collectively, the conquering cultures are much bigger and have more power than the Indians do.  It’s like huge blocks of rock have been dropped around them and over them. But the Native Americans, like the Balinese, prevail by flowing around these obstacles, instead of fighting against them.  Being like water, embracing whatever is dropped on it, nourishing anyone who thirsts.

What could I, not having gone through anything comparable to the Natives or the Balinese (although my ancestors may have), learn from their heroic example? What should we do when confronted with the power of hardness? When troops of hard men in helmets, armed with batons and guns try to sweep people off the street, or planes drop missiles on communities, should people not resist?

Perhaps the answer is different for each person. Charles Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species who survive, or the most intelligent. It is the one who is most adaptable to change.” How different that is from the way Darwin’s work is always summed up to us: “the survival of the fittest.” It seems that adaptation, survival, and resistance may be different aspects of the same thing.

So perhaps the best we can do is to be adaptable, be alive. Stay flexible, keep flowing. Even though we die as individuals, things will change. It may take generations, but the hard and stiff will go under. The soft and weak will stay up, and we will hopefully create something beautiful in the process, as the Native Americans and Balinese have..

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9 Responses to The Soft Survive

  1. Roger Eaton says:

    Well, this is very likable, David! There is a Christian passage along the same lines as I recall, the meek shall inherit the earth. And even the toppled tree might send up a row of branches, adapting as it can. I’m not so sure we have generations though. It is looking more like we are the ones we have been waiting for, as the saying goes.

  2. Nice piece, thanks David.

  3. Nice piece David. Think Ghandi, think Martin Luther King. You could point out that they were ‘soft’ and hence were killed/murdered/assassinated by ‘hard’ forces, however they are still with us in the legacies they left behind; they have become part of ‘us’ even now.

  4. Bill Bruckner says:

    Thanks, David. Best wishes.

  5. Liz says:

    I love this, David.

    I had a wonderful experience in the checkout line at a fabric store this week! I happened to be behind a woman wearing a Canoe Journey sweatshirt. I introduced myself and asked if there was any way our kayak club could gather and salute them, and she said, “Oh, you should be pulling (paddling) alongside us!” So I’m going to try to make it happen somehow.
    The Canoe Journey is a tradition in the Northwest since 1989. All the Canoe families from native tribes or nations around the Puget Sound paddle to a different host each year: the Swinomish, the Makah, the Muckleshoot, the Nisqually, and so on. Then theyhave a big party! The families make and decorate their own ocean going canoes, and it is a fantastic way to honor and keep up the traditional ingenuity of the peoples of this region.

  6. Maureen says:

    Excited to read this! Unexpected freedom and resilience are pet obsessions of mine.

    As in Bali, I’m reminded of Laos — the most bombed nation on earth, not per capita, but in total tonnage, in spite of its diminutiveness — the much-trammeled hill tribes there are often described as regressive/primitive/non-aggressive, but have in fact flowed water-like from the grasping fist of state-authority, time and time again, throughout a long history of non-violence. Travelling there myself, I was struck by the people’s gentle psychological strength, their profound social equality (men and women, different but absolutely equal; people of different physical and mental abilities, different but absolutely engaged) and most of all, their common and absolute cognisance that if the state began to interfere too heavily in their lives, they would simply, “move away deeper into the mountains.” For further reading on this perspective of tribal Laos, I highly recommend James Scott’s book, The Art of Not Being Governed; similarly, his book The Weapons of the Weak discusses how mostly-overlooked “soft survive” methods of protest/rebellion are used by the world’s oppressed.

  7. That is one of my favorite chapters of Tao Te Ching. I’ve certainly seen some pretty lively soft-bodied people and some pretty lifeless hard-bodied people in my life.

  8. jim snell says:

    I read the blogs and excellent comments and ideas from the Tao.

    I have front row seat on this.

    My Mom was the “strong one” in our family unit, my Dad was considered the “weak” one.

    My mom passed away when she was in early 70’s with lung cancer from smoking.

    My dad lived on till he was in mid 80’s – quite a few years after my mom passed away.

    My mom was considered the solid oak while my Dad was the flexible willow bending back and forth in the winds.

    Thank you for the excellent thoughtfull comments as well as those from the Tao.

  9. Tim says:

    Hey, I just realized that from “VICTIM” to “VICTOR” is just 2 letters.

    Go figure.

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