The Art of Diagrams #2 – Good, Bad and Inbetween

This week I picked another concept which I find difficult to clearly verbalise and decided to make a diagram to illustrate my meaning.

Last summer I re-read the Tao Te Ching. I read one or two chapters each day in 4 different translations and made notes on what I thought the main themes of each chapter were. It took me two months to complete and was a very enlightening exercise. Some themes seemed to be repeated many times. One of these themes challenged the idea of trying to be good.

Like many people I grew up seeing the world in a simplified, black and white way. There was good and there was bad. In line with this thinking I used to try with all of my might to be good in every action I did, all of the time. It took me half a lifetime to learn that this was neither helpful for others nor good for me. And it was the Tao Te Ching which pointed it out.


Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.

If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;

a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

(Translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Now I think this is quite a subtle thing to understand, or at least, it is for me. Basically, if you push too hard to be good your actions will begin to be worse.

For example, if you are trying to be a good parent and help your child to grow and become a basically happy, decent adult. If you neglect them or harm them this is obviously bad and will not help them, but if you do everything for them and never say a bad word to them you also harm them because then they cannot grow and learn to deal with the world. In the developmental psychology literature this concept was first written about by Winnicot when he came to realize that babies and children actually benefit when their mothers fail them in manageable ways.

Another example might be in keeping exactly to speed when playing a musical instrument. While keeping good time is essential to good playing, having no flexibility at all and keeping rigidly to the exact time of each beat can often make a piece of music sound mechanical and lacking in life and emotion.

It’s easy to see the same principle at work when people study for exams. Obviously studying helps and is important for success but if a person pushes too hard they can impact their mental and physical health and frequently then do worse in their exams.

So how could I go about illustrating this idea?

Well first I thought that it might be useful to make a diagram which shows a morality scale. To illustrate this I first thought of a Star Wars analogy – Jedi (for the good side) and Sith (for the bad side).

I even looked up some brilliant Jedi and Sith artwork by one of my favourite artists Iain McCaig who worked on concept art and storyboards for Star Wars Episodes 1, 2 and 3…

(Kenobi by Iain McCaig)
(Maul by Iain McCaig)

However, a good diagram is something that should be easily understood by many people and since not everyone is a Star Wars fan (sadly) a different illustration might serve me better.

Then I began to think about common ideas of good and evil. One of the most common in my culture is the idea of devils and angels. So I made a drawing of the wing of each.

Then I used these drawings to put together a basic morality scale…

This works as a general scale of good and evil but doesn’t show why extreme good might end up being bad (apart from the fact that an extreme altruist’s actions would obviously be bad for the person themselves). In the Tao Te Ching, the problem with extreme goodness that it forces the system, it tries to push the river. It is the opposite of Wu Wei, which is “unforced action”, or “natural action”.

So then I began thinking about how to illustrate the benefits of Wu Wei. My sketches and diagrams got more and more complex (and more and more useless) until I remembered this simple well-known symbol which captures it perfectly…

I worked on the basic diagram to make it more visually interesting by making one side chrome and the other white, added my explanation and it was done!

The week after next, I’ll explain the process for making realistic chrome in Photoshop as I did here.

10 thoughts on “The Art of Diagrams #2 – Good, Bad and Inbetween

  1. I think you’re correct about the two models, Jo: obviously the yin-yang symbol suits the Eastern modes of thought that, particularly, Buddhism exemplifies (as that’s where it originates) while the cross symbol is almost like the x and y axes we know from graphs, continuums both!

    When we briefly flirted with Quakerism in the 70s — TM too! — what attracted us were the inclusiveness and the still peacefulness it promoted, just as your poster suggests.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your really encouraging comment! Thinking about the dualistic model (with the wings) and the non-dualistic model (the yin yang symbol) I wonder if they represent the paradigms of Christianity and Buddhism in my mind since these are the two religions I’ve studied? Expanding this a little perhaps they might link to western moral thought and eastern moral thought to some extent? In the Quaker Meeting I go to, there are people who have a predominantly western Christian outlook and those from more contemplative eastern backgrounds too and it’s really interesting to see the conversations and thoughts which come from these two mind sets. We have a Quaker approach to it summed up in this poster which I particularly like…


  3. I appreciate your thoughts here, including your I Ching musings, what a thoughtful way to approach living a life. Your wings continuum diagram was visually arresting but I was even more impressed with your yin-yang box, which shows the continuum as a loop rather than a line blocked off at both extremes. I know you weren’t suggesting an equivalence between the two symbolic images but it does give me a means to ponder further, thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Dave, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here. I really love to hear your responses to my posts. I must admit, when I read the Tao Te Ching 29, my mind went straight to Ecclesiastes 3 as well! As you say I really must try to read some William Blake. I do know The Tyger poem, having come across it in my youth via a Tangerine Dream album Tyger Tyger where there is a version of Blake’s poem set to music. Unfortunately it’s not a very strong track. (“Alchemy of the Heart” on the same album is amazing.) I will look him up and let you know how I get on. I think I’ll probably really like him if I can understand the poetry. Thanks again for your super comment!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow Jo. I love the way you think and turn even the most complex thoughts into simple drawings and art that anyone can understand.
    Aargghh the disadvantage of commenting his phone is thatch can’t go back and look at what was written. The book you refer to and the concepts remind me of two things. 1. Ecclesiastes chapter 3 I think… there is a time for everything and a purpose for it. Nothing we can do will change that. We just need to let it be.
    2. I think I have mentioned to you before the early artist and poet William Blake. He had perceptions of the Good and the Bad. If you read his poem called the Tyger… you will see that both exist and both come from the same source. He promotes this as truth.. and I tend to agree. These is nothing we can do. The Tyger will always be a Tyger and a lamb always a lamb. One cannot by trying and wanting be the other. We just need to accept what is and continue in our own Circle.
    I do hope you read some William Blake, just as I know will seek the book and person which you have mentioned in this post.
    Love your work.

    Liked by 3 people

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