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The Butterfly’s Name

With a heart heavy and burdened by difficult thoughts, I share a story of my life and make a broader plea.

Our campus, a web of family and acquaintances, and the international community recently lost Qiguang Zhao. As scholar and sage, friend and enthusiast for life, he taught by living a legacy sorely lacking to us today: to slow down. Listen to this beautiful world. Enjoy life. I barely had the chance to meet the author of a book that is most influential in my life before his departure, time for us as fleeting and splendid as cherry blossoms. Doing Nothing and Doing Everything, like every other Taoist text I have encountered, entered my life at just the moment when I could understand and appreciate it. Tao guides us to a life of serene attentiveness; not a mission to change the world but to accept it and promote what is already good about it. It is in honor of his accommodating and peaceful life that I ask us to consider our dramas of interpersonal strife.

Carleton gives us a space to meet different people, whose backgrounds, language, and, best of all, viewpoints differ. The differences can be both small and meaningful: growing up knowing “Italian beef” or “rummage sales,” flying “darning needles” or “sunshowers.” Being raised in families of siblings, divided or absent parents, or many relatives. Whether education before Carleton ever included China and Russia or whether the chance activist made the ‘right’ way clear to you since before you even understood the issue. These are what make us individuals and the differences, the valuable, inadvertent circumstances of who we are, have no reason to stand between us as a community.

But too often people cling to their experiences, unable to appreciate or respect anything different. When we refuse to listen we refuse other people acknowledgment or appreciation of what they have known, felt, and valued. “It is important to draw wisdom from many sources,” said the sage Iroh, “If you draw wisdom from only one source it will turn become stale.” If we merely see difference as dangerous, as hostile, this is a fear that will keep us locked into stagnant mindsets for a lifetime. And in a life that does not grow, disagreement leads to persecution. Past wrongs develop to prejudice. Criticism turns into punishment. Ideas not allowed to interchange can appear aggressive, inciting unintended fear and pain. In a conflict of beliefs, accusations soon fly; who is aggressed and who aggrieved.

This narrative of victim and victor binds us like chains to a specific way of experiencing the world, a way we can force other people to be chained with us against their nature and against their will. It is not a question, never a question of having the best idea out there. Beating down other opinions with the strength or narrow-mindedness of your own teaches you nothing. Let us seek not to flee from the differences that make our interactions worthwhile. Listen to what is different, seek to understand, and allow your mind to consider the experiences that are not your own life. You can be more than what you are and that is the growth that comes from engaging novel (even frustrating or frightening) perspectives.

Zhuangzi once dreamed of being a butterfly. He considered more options and asked not why he would dream this as a man, but instead whether he were a butterfly dreaming he were a man. I wish that we too ask and reflect on what we experience. Let us listen with no assumptions. What do we know of the undiscovered country? I wish simply that Qiguang find peace beyond mortal coils; if this is the dream, I wish that a joyful butterfly delights in the breezes amid a sea of Nature’s sweetest flowers.

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