Not Too Bitter, Not Too Sweet

Found under the lid of a Honest Tea White Tea and Mango iced tea bottle. Photo: Anna Montgomery

When my husband Kurt and I were having lunch a few months ago, my Honest Tea bottle offered up some truth with its white tea and mango. Its interior lid quoted a Pashto saying, “Do not be so sweet that people will eat you up, nor so bitter that they will spit you out.” That is the rub is it not? How much should we wrestle for our independence and freedom versus the needs of those around us–those we love and care for, as well as the collective groups of people who share our neighborhood, city, state, region, country, and planet.

I will freely admit that I have never stood up for my individual needs as much as I am obsessed with caring for the needs of others. My altruistic, other-focused perspective sounds like a wise choice, especially since I am a woman, because it is definitely what is expected of me. No matter what culture of people I have ever experienced, read about, or observed, women are expected to care for the needs of others more diligently than their own. We do not want to be spit out or found wanting.

Pashto, the language of this proverb, is the language of some of the people in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pashto–along with French, German, Russian, and Spanish–is one of the world’s languages that is built around grammatical gender, meaning that the nouns chosen to express ideas contain feminine or masculine verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on. Chinese, English, Korean, Japonic, Native American, and Turkish languages do not have this grammatical gender expression. Modern English expresses gender in its pronouns (e.g., he, she, his, her).

It is interesting to me that a language in which words have male and female meanings, should have an aphorism admonishing the wise person not to be too sweet nor too sour, but suggesting that a person should seek to strike a balance in between, to achieve the harmonious center.

The floor of the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland. Photo: Anna Montgomery

The majority of men I know do not seem to wrestle with striking a balance between their individual needs and the needs of those around them. Certainly our nation’s president is not the least bit concerned with anyone else’s needs. For him all roads lead to him, his re-election, and continuation of the power he wields to ensure: (1) he is shielded from prosecution by the Attorney General of his choosing, (2) that governments and people seeking his favor will stay in his hotels and resorts to enrich his bottom line, (3) that he will be worshipped by his fervid fan base, and (4) he will not be seen as a loser from Queens, New York. Losing is not something he can abide.

On the other hand, women in our culture struggle mightily with how to balance their own needs with those of their family, friends, and community. I know I have struggled during this pandemic to keep myself safe while meeting the obligations asked of me by my family.

Despite the competing forces currently pulling our nation and even our families apart, there is a middle ground that seeks balance between the poles of extremism. I have pitched a tent in that moderate location–the metaphorical equator between the inhospitable North and South poles. My neat equatorial analogy falls down, however, as I live in East Tennessee. If I am the equator between the two opposing political Republican/Democratic poles, then living at my equatorial home is too close to the sun and also rather inhospitable–especially during the very politicized COVID-19 virus ravagingin our country and the state of Tennessee with 4.3 million people recorded as testing positive and nearly 150,000 deaths to date.

Photo: Kurt Weiss

Being a moderate who believes this virus is unpredictable and dangerous, I believe we should all take prudent measures to protect ourselves and others: wear masks, respect social distancing, not open schools until the viral curve has been flattened and brought under control, and refrain from gathering togther with people outside our family bubble until we have a vaccine that is widely distributed and available. This is not the sort of belief system exercised by everyone in our nation or by my state, city, or everyone in my family. Thus, the conundrum becomes how to balance the competing interests of the individual (staying alive and healthy) with my obligations to my country, state, city, and family.

Perhaps a way forward was suggested by our visit to Portland, Oregon, a year ago when Kurt and I visited our nephew Zach. Recently Portland has changed considering since a year ago. The city has suffered intense conflict between protestors who support the Black Lives Matter movement and Homeland Security forces sent to the city by our current president.

A year ago, however, we found Portland to be an inspiring city full of natural beauty. While we were there, we visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden that was built by 70 craftsmen from Portland’s sister city of Suzhou, China. After a year of construction, the Lan Su opened in September 2000 with the defining motto: between lake and mountain lies true meaning.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon, and its Rock Mountain and Waterfall, were built by 70 Chinese craftsmen from Portland’s sister city of Suzhou, in China’s Jiangsu province known for its Ming Dynasty gardens. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

In Ancient Chinese philosophy, balance is the source of tranquility, harmony, and happiness, as in the concepts of yin (dark, negative) and yang (light, positive) as present in nature. What seems to be oppositional on its face, in Chinese belief, can actually be complementary. As explained in the Lan Su online Visitor’s Guide:

Yin and yang are seemingly opposing forces, like dark and light or masculine and feminine, are interconnected and yield balance and harmony. The reflection of the sky (yang) is mirrored in the water here on earth (yin). The willow branches (yin) caress the stone (yang) below them.

Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon

Balance, order, harmony, tranquility, happiness, and health depend on compromise. Our country’s future depends on detente, a French word meaning easing of tension, hostility, or strained relations. Detente was a word we used to hear a great deal about in the early 1970s when President Richard Nixon was trying to broker a lasting peace, and avert nuclear war with the Soviet Union, through an agreement with its then-leader Leonid Brezhnev.

I was just a kid at that time, but even I understood that nuclear annihilation was MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The Soviet Union dissolved during the 1970s and 1980s and in 1991, after its satellite states gained their independence, what was left officially became the Russian Federation, or what we call Russia. The name may have changed but the wish to control power on the world stage has not. Russia seeks to undermine the remaining superpower on the world stage: the United States. And what better way to neuter America than to foment its destruction from within by encouraging division, hatred, and racism.

My kitchen window in Old North Knoxville. Photo: Anna Montgomery

For the future of our country–and the world–we should abandon our Mutually Assured Destruction of either/or thinking and adopt the notion of and. We should discourage divisive thinking of North versus South, Black versus White, male versus female, immigrant versus non-immigrant, Native American versus non-Native American, Democrat versus Republican, red state versus blue state, rural areas versus cities, and farms versus towns.

We should be Black and White because we are black and white. We should be cities and rural areas because are towns and farms. Within each red state (except maybe tiny Wyoming) there are millions of people who vote blue; and within each blue state are millions of people who vote red. Does it really make any sense to destroy our country, our livelihoods, and our lives to spite the tribe on the other side of the railroad track? Do we really want to go down with the ship, fighting with each other?

Succinctly, we should be the American people who wear masks for the duration.

~ Anna – 7/30/2020

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
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