Monday, March 9, 2009

Crisis = Danger + Opportunists

There's been a lot of talk lately about "not wasting a crisis," that the financial disaster offers a chance to do big things and make great changes. The unspoken catalyst for all this change, of course, is fear--when people are scared they're more easily swayed. In such times, we are frequently reminded that the Chinese symbol for "crisis" consists of two characters, one denoting "danger" and the other "opportunity." The idea that a crisis is an opportunity has become a kind of reassuring proverb. It is also entirely false.

Victor H. Mair, the renowned professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania (his translation of Chuang Tzu, Wandering on the Way, is one of my favorite books), has written an enlightening essay explaining that "crisis" = "danger" + "opportunity" is a "potentially perilous, fundamentally fallacious theory."
Those who purvey the doctrine that the Chinese word for "crisis" is composed of elements meaning "danger" and "opportunity" are engaging in a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society, for it lulls people into welcoming crises as unstable situations from which they can benefit. Adopting a feel-good attitude toward adversity may not be the most rational, realistic approach to its solution.
The Chinese logograph for "crisis" is wēijī, consisting of two characters:


While the wēi character does indeed denote "danger," Professor Mair contends that the character most definitely does not denote "opportunity."

The of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. In a crisis, one wants above all to save one's skin and neck! Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.

It’s important to be clear in our words, especially in times of wēijī. As the great Taoist Chuang Tzu said, "When deeds and words are in accord, the whole world is transformed." But for those opportunists with utopian dreams, the master added this admonition:
If you persist in trying to attain what is never attained, you will be destroyed by the very thing you seek. To know when to stop, to know when you can get no further by your own action, this is the right beginning!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Language of Myth

Harry Holland, Outcrop
"We have come to realize that myths are among the subtlest and most direct languages of experience. They reenact moments of signal truth or crisis in the human condition. By mythology is more than history made memorable; the mythographer - the poet - is the historian of the unconscious. This gives the great myths their haunting universality."