On August 6th of 1945, I learned how consequential little things are.
That day, my uncle explained how a tiny, invisible atom, something a million times smaller than the head of the pin, contains power of incomprehensible magnitude. It destroyed an entire city, and later we’d learn the explosions annihilated between 90,000 to 146,000 lives. Survivors would suffer lingering effects of radiation. Rapt, I listened to my uncle describe this macabre event. It frightened me.
Seventy years later, on June 28th of 2020, I first read about a Chinese philosopher named Zhang Zai. He lived in the 11th century. Zhang possessed a brilliant mind and knew a lot about many things. He wrote scholarly tomes, served in the emperor’s court, and conceived of an amazing idea of the universe: everything has the same essence, creation is a of a piece, and it changes all the time. Zhang understood this as the work of ‘qi.’
What terrified me, those 75 years ago when learning of Hiroshima, was how this tiny and invisible atom possessed the power to destroy and annihilate so much and so many. But what awed me about qi was how its unseen power could create so much and with such variety; creating from nothing, everything there is, matter as solid as rocks and soil, while vivifying creatures like insects, animals and sentient beings.
Everything that is, that ever had been, is qi. Qi is eternal, yet always changing. Yin and yang are the forces governing qi. As the yin and yang meet, we’ll never know for sure just what might happen. We know that already from the endless tales of romantic encounters and their unpredictable twists. By the yin and yang interaction, transformations mobilize to create new things, but never the same things twice. Of the 7.8 billion souls living today, no two are exactly alike and, as Zhai understood this, it was ever thus. That is the essence of life, engaging, becoming, and always evolving. Qi is full of surprises.
Zhang would say we mourn because we perceive change as loss, the irretrievable aspects of our lives. He understands change as transformation. What was water will become ice and dying embers will leave ashes. The inexorability of change will continue to transform ice into vapor and form carbon from ash. With qi, all things are being made new.
As I read about Zhang, I could not help but think of the tumultuous world I live in, its minute by minute changes; I wonder every day where it is headed, what will come next.
We say we were blindsided by the coronavirus; we didn’t see it coming. Not necessarily. There were people who did see it coming, some who could begin to address its potential consequences, but didn’t.
A black man was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis and our black population exploded in rage. The volatility was there all the while, but for many of us whites, it remained invisible to us. We didn’t see it coming. But, many did see it coming and tried to tell us while most paid little attention.
Comprehending the signs of impending change was once the work of seers and prophets. They helped us see what we could not. Today’s socio- political climate, with its image-driven theatrics and relentless electronic titillation has kept them invisible. Political theatrics inure us to the significance of things unseen, the power in the tiny, those invisible forces that determine the huge impacts on our lives, like, say, a virus.
COVID-19 is a virus. It is tiny, invisible to the naked eye. It functions by opposites; in order to gain its life, it kills or compromises the lives of others. Something infinitesimal in nature has effectively turned most of our planet on its ear. Little things do mean a lot and they transform our lives.
Before the pandemic, those little things we did before and hardly gave them a thought, have evolved into new rituals. We don’t hug any more, we zoom. We’d once get together and talk; now we text or phone. In public places, we have begun to wear masks, like bank robbers and terrorists. We don’t shake hands but nod or bow, instead. We remain clear of each other, observing calculated distances. We have grown suspicious, not only of strangers, but loved ones, too. We worry they are infected, or worry that we are, and how others can be a danger to us as we might be to them. We exist tentatively, in a cloud of uncertainty that insinuates itself into every corner of life.
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, transformed a man normally invisible to the world into a powerful icon that shook the nation, indeed the world. This event made visible a previously unacknowledged injustice, invisible to so many, so it became impossible for white America to ignore it anymore. The picture taken during his arrest was worth a thousand words.
In the paradoxical way of transformation, if we can redress the injustices visited on America’s black citizens, we will have begun to heal the chronic soul sickness America’s white citizens have suffered since America’s inception. The power in the unseen and the colliding forces driven by inequities finally spilled out into the streets. Is this qi, the black and white, the yin and yang interacting to create a more equitable way of being neighbors? I’m hopeful.
As I was writing this essay, whenever I typed in the word ‘qi’, I kept thinking what a tepid and innocuous word ‘qi’ appears in print. Just two letters, hardly dramatic or grand; it totally lacks hyperbole, a word inscrutable, at first. The word isn’t even capitalized, as if it were not worthy to read “Qi,” with a capital that might invest it with greater importance. Even in print it is a tiny thing.
I guess that makes the point; little things mean a lot.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.