XXXIII. When the Bad Guys Win

Hexagram 33. "Retreat."
Hexagram 33. “Retreat”

As we continue our exploration of the I Ching’s thematic second half, the progression as it now stands goes: dating then marriage then the bad guys win. To some of you, that will sound strange. To some of you (who may have been married before), it actually makes tons of sense. Either way, we totally didn’t see it coming. I hope by now, though, we understand that this is somewhat typical of the I Ching – when we expect something, what we get is usually something different. When we don’t expect something, that’s when we see it.

At its simplest, the 33rd hexagram portrays a time when darkness is on its way up and light has to retreat. This isn’t a matter of choices or will, it’s just fate, a natural and necessary part of the cycle, like all the others. To put it another way, if we believe that it is possible and indeed sometimes necessary for the good guys to win, it must also be both possible and other times necessary for the bad guys to win. That’s what we examine here. Within the scheme of the year, it is observed that in July and August, though it may seem on the surface to be the middle of the heat of the summer, light is already retreating and winter is making plans to take over. It’s happening now.

He doesn't look like much of a villain, but trust me on this one. And this guy used to win all the time.
He doesn’t look like much of a villain, but trust me on this one. And this guy used to win all the time.

We can’t win, here, so there’s no point being in denial. The bad guys are taking their turn. All that remains for us to do is retreat. That’s not the same as running away. We’re not just clearing out as fast as we can, no matter what must be sacrificed in the process. This isn’t leaving with terror or fleeing for our lives. In order to have some good results, which is still possible, we need to pull this off right. It’s not escape, it’s strategy. The means by which we execute it are the tactics of wisdom.

Looking back at the months of July and August, let it be reiterated that it seems during those months that we’re on top of the year because we are. The thing to learn from the ancients on this one is the fact that this is always the moment that we start going downhill, that the bad guys start preparing to retake the throne, and, consequently, this is always the moment in which we must start our preparation for the dark time to come. If we don’t take the necessary steps now, we’ll find ourselves confronted directly with our enemies during the moment of their ascendancy. We’ll lose. That’s not the goal, here. We’re not accepting defeat. We’re accepting reality.

Indeed, we’re not just ceding ground, here. We’re not telling them, “You win, you can have it.” No. We’re withdrawing like shadows into the trees and beginning a calculated guerrilla campaign. The bad guys will take control, but where they are weak, we must strike them and then withdraw again. Truth be told, this is the only winning strategy of any outnumbered military or political force. Like any good guerrilla, we’re not just trying to frustrate and wound the enemy. We’re laying the groundwork for that inevitable time – and it is inevitable – when it is our turn to rise yet again and emerge on top.

These guys know.
These guys know.

Naturally, our examination here includes some specific detailed notions. There’s a possibility, alluded to earlier, that we may find ourselves in the midst of a badly-timed conflict with the enemy. Likely, this is due to our failure to react or prepare in time to prevent this, but once it’s upon us the causes don’t matter much. We’ve got to deal with it. And the only way to truly deal with it is to hold still and do nothing. Any alternative to this is disaster. Then there are other possibilities. Sometimes, no matter how much we prepare, we may find ourselves not in a direct conflict with the forces of darkness, but in a place in which they actually have some good on their side. Even as we try and execute the retreat we have planned, they cling to us and refuse to let us go. To some degree, we may have to give them what they want.

He's looking at you.
He’s looking at you.

Oddly, almost laughably if we are truly imagining the type of bad guys I’ve been imagining, if they cling to us in such a manner as described above, it’s possible our only chance to maintain any sort of possible advantage is to employ them in our service. It’s not “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” it’s “if you can’t beat em, make them work for you. It’s better than fighting them and losing, and better than working for them, right?

But could we ever actually employ this guy?
But could we ever actually employ this guy?

Truly, though, even as we speak of territory and military terminology and guerrilla warfare, the key to this entire circumstance – and perhaps this is a broader political lesson, perhaps not – is mental. It lies within. It lies in our ability, or lack thereof, to survive the bad time by rising above the bad time. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, that’s the hardest thing in the world to do. But, again, if we understand that this time must come, and understand its meaning, we may find ourselves prepared and ready, embracing our retreat with pleasure. We’re not harmed by withdrawing, but the bad guys may actually suffer loss purely without our influence and resources. So long as we are resolute and not prone to distraction or twisted persuasion, we can execute at the right time and avoid any unpleasantness altogether.

Hatred, bitterness, and resentment are a waste of our time. If we can but see the whole of the path that unfolds quite clearly before us, the only rational reaction is happiness at this retreat and the ultimate results that will derive. Knowing this, we can execute easily. All can be well even when it is not.


This post is the thirty-third of sixty-four in our Days of Change series exploring each hexagram of the ancient Chinese I Ching one by one. To sample others in this series – or go wild and read from the beginning – go here.

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