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Bitter, Sour, and Sweet

In my past efforts to escape pain, I found myself drawn away from the cultures and beliefs of my family and culture of origin. I was feeling, and still feel sometimes, so much pain that I couldn’t look back anymore. My old comforts were infected, diseased by the same past. I’ve since learned to notice the flowers that grew in that swampland, but when I first started I needed something, ANYTHING to help not fall back in. I love my past, jagged though it is, but I feel a special love for those books, people, and pieces of art that brought me joy when I needed it most. One of those gifts was the old (ancient?) painting called “The Vinegar Tasters”.

Most people study it in high school or eight grade, and I stumbled across it again by accident. I haven’t been able to find out who painted it, but it depicts the three giants of Eastern thought: Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, all sampling a single tub of vinegar. If you look closely you can see that, after tasting the vinegar, one man has a sour expression on his face, the second has a bitter expression, and the third is smiling. All three react differently to the vinegar, which represents life itself.

Confucius saw the pain of an unordered world and sought to bring order to chaos. To him the taste of life was sour, spoiled with humanity gone wrong. He established a rigid set of practices to ensure people treated one another with respect and which created a harmonious society. Though I admit I never really possessed a love of following the rules, Confucius has been proven correct. If history teaches us anything, it’s that people can be corruptible and cruel. Like James Madison centuries later, Confucius sought (and succeeded) in making a system which held people accountable, creating the greatest happiness for everyone.

Next is the Buddha, who tastes the vinegar with a bitter expression. Buddhism, either as a religion or a secular philosophy, understands that life is full of suffering. All things are impermanent. Everything ends. The Buddha understood that to escape suffering one must comprehend the world as already broken. In effect, he taught his followers to let go of perfection, to accept what is, and embrace the inevitability of pain. Only in rejecting fantasy do people find truth, and only in truth does one find real, lasting love and peace.

Finally there is Laozi, who tastes the vinegar and finds it sweet. It is unknown if Laozi was a single man or a number of ancient philosophers who created a single system of beliefs and practices, but it is known that he (or she) discovered the greatest joy in simplicity and silence. Their movement, still occurring today and called Taoism, embraces a philosophy of moving through life like water, living fully in the present moment. It is a way and religion of noticing. Of looking closely at oneself and the world and seeing, despite all the noise, the eternal beauty and value that is present.

So we return to the painting. Some interpret it as being in favor of Laozi and Taoism, but I personally disagree. Just because Laozi is happy doesn’t mean he’s correct. What I love about this painting is that all three men are right.

If life is tasting vinegar (if I was the painter I might have picked ice cream or whiskey but hey, to each his own), there is no right or wrong way to taste it. Sometimes it will be as sweet as honey, shining as you notice the beauty in yourself and others. Sometimes it’s as bitter as black coffee. People break arms, heads, and hearts, and I know there have been many times in my life when it’s seemed like the bitterness would never end. And finally, people will sour and disappoint you, hurt you even.

In this life pain is inevitable, it cannot ever be truly escaped. And yet…there is joy. Passion. Beauty. Love. All so piercing it makes your heart break for the joy and desire of it. All these come from the same place. They are all real, they all matter.

And that is the message I find in the painting:


Each philosopher, in his own way, came to the same conclusions:

1. Life requires stillness to find joy and peace.

2. People everywhere are in pain, so be kind.

It all matters. All experience. All pain and joy and sorrow and love. We are all unique and of infinite worth, but we are not special in regards to pain. We all feel it. As Brene´ Brown once put it, “Everyone has a story that will bring you to your knees.” Many, even most, people hide it and they can make you think and feel that you’re fragile and broken, the only one in pain.

But you’re not. We all hurt. We’re all here together.

I try to learn from each master. I try hard to understand that all things change, and accept the pain that entails. I try to love myself by creating strong boundaries, loving other people but understanding some people must be loved with my guard up. And I try to actually notice all the beauty, the miracle of life that surrounds me daily.

My hope for you today is to know that all of your experience is important and powerful and real. Please try to love yourself, in however small a way you can, and if you get a second, try to love someone else too. That way, no matter if your vinegar is sweet or sour, at least you’ll be tasting it with a friend. As the great American poet and philosopher Billy Joel once put it, “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”

You’re never truly alone friend. At the end of the day, you still have a world of people feeling the same thing you are and you have yourself, always.

Please, treat yourself gently.

Your friend,



James believes strongly in the power of accepting ourselves with hope, speaking with vulnerability and courage, and taking small, powerful steps toward self-love. He grew up all over the country, the son of two military parents, and eventually settled with his beautiful wife in Virginia. He speaks of himself as a very flawed, blessed man who’s experienced both illness and trauma, and he strongly believes in advocating for mental health (his own as well as others) and helping people find connection and love their worthy, imperfect selves.

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