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A Brief Discussion of

The mark of a first rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still retain the ability to function. 
                                 -F. Scott Fitzgerald

The dictionary defines paradox as an act or statement that on one level of meaning seems to contradict itself.  Yet at a higher level (often called the "meta level") there is a deeper truth or understanding.


Paradox as Religious Experience

     When we consciously approach the shadow, we examine a very powerful aspect of our personality that is almost universally shunned and avoided.  And in this way, we enter the realm of paradox.

     Paradox is that artesian well of meaning we need so badly in our modern world.  All the great myths give instructions on this subject and remind us that the treasure will be found in one of the least likely or popular places.  What good could come from your own shadow?  Strangely, the best can come from this neglected quarter.  We will go to almost any length to avoid this painful paradox; but in that refusal we only confine ourselves to the useless experience of contradiction.  Contradiction brings the crushing burden of meaninglessness.  One can endure any suffering if it has meaning; but meaninglessness is unbearable.  Contradiction is barren and destructive, yet paradox is creative.  It is a powerful embracing of reality.  All religious experience in its historical form is expressed in paradox; observe the Christian creeds that have been formulated in such paradoxical language.  While contradiction is static and unproductive, paradox makes room for grace and mystery.

     Example:  Every human experience can be expressed in terms of paradox.  The electric plug in the wall has two prongs, access to a positive and negative electrical charge.  From this opposition comes the usefulness of the electric current.  Day is comprehensible only in contrast to night.  Masculinity has relevance only in contrast to femininity.  Activity has meaning only in relation to rest.  Taste is a matter of contrasts.  Up is only possible in the presence of down.  What would north be without south?  Where would I be without you?  Where is joy not bounded by sobriety?

     For some incomprehensible reason we often refuse this paradoxical nature of reality and, in an idiot moment, think we can function outside it.  The very moment we do this, we translate paradox into opposition.  When leisure is torn loose from work, both are spoiled.  Personal suffering begins when we are crucified between these opposites.  If we try to embrace one without paying attention to the other, we degrade paradox into contradiction.  Yet both pairs of opposites must be equally honored.  To suffer one's confusion is the first step in healing.*  Then the pain of contradiction is transformed into the mystery of paradox.

     The quickest way I know to break a person is to give him or her two sets of contradicting values -- which is exactly what we do, in modern culture, with our Sunday and Monday moralities.  We are taught by Christianity to follow a set of values that are almost entirely disregarded in everyday business life.  How is a person to cope?

     At some point -- usually in midlife -- the tension becomes too great and these two opposing points of view demand a new and different treatment.  We can no longer allow ourselves to be torn between the two.  The pressure becomes so great that something has to give.

     We hate paradox since it is so painful getting there, but it is a very direct experience of a reality beyond our usual frame of reference and yields some of the greatest insights.  It forces us beyond ourselves and destroys naive and inadequate adaptations.  Most of the time, we support two warring points of view and evade the confrontation.  This is the character of many modern lives.  In an ordinary day we have endless examples of this divided opinion.  I need to go to work but I don't want to; I don't like my neighbor but I have to be civil with him; I should lose some weight but I like certain foods so much; my budget is overtaxed but . . . These are the contradictions that we live with constantly.  Yet these illusions should be disillusioned, painful as this may be.  We cannot simply blot out one side of the balance.  But we can change our way of looking at the problem.  If we accept these opposing elements and endure the collision of them in full consciousness, we embrace the paradox.  The capacity for paradox is the measure of spiritual strength and the surest sign of maturity.

     To advance from opposition (always a quarrel) to paradox (always holy) is to make a leap of consciousness.  That leap takes us through the chaos of middle age and gives a vista that enlightens the remaining years of life.

     It is a valuable exercise to list the oppositions that we face, then try to restore them to the realm of paradox.  We can stat with these two sets of values:  the everyday practical attitudes that nearly everyone agrees to and the religious instruction that we are given.

Practical Values Religious Values
Winning Losing
Income Outgo
Eating Fasting
Action Passivity
Earning Giving
Owning Selling all and giving to the poor
Possession Poverty
Activity Repose
Sex Celibacy
Decisiveness Observation
Freedom Obedience to authority
Choice Duty
Democracy Obedience
Sharp consciousness Meditative consciousness
Sobriety Ecstasy
Focus Vision
Belief that more is better Belief that less is better

     Few people would argue with the practical values just listed.  To win is good; to receive is on the plus side of the scale; a good income is excellent; to eat is life itself; action gets things done; to earn is the badge of responsibility; to own is to be a pillar of the community and a person of substance; possession is security; to be busy is a virtue (the devil finds work for idle hands); sex is the cornerstone of our lives; to be decisive is to be productive and reliable; freedom is the mainspring of our form of government; choice is sacrosanct for free people; power means effectiveness; focused consciousness is the best antidote to the dreamy half-awakeness of primitive people; clarity is important; everyone knows that more is better.

     These virtues are blue-chip and beyond controversy in our Western society.  Our culture is based on them and has produced its best works by virtue of them.

     But what of the other list, the religious values?  We hear of them nearly every Sunday and they are an undertone in our Christian culture.  We are told from the pulpit that it is better to give than to receive; sell all thou hast and give to the poor; to fast is to gain spiritual virtue; turn the other cheek "blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall see God"; "they owned nothing but held all in common."  In the story of industrious Martha and quiet Mary, we know that Mary was the better of the two.  Celibacy is the highest estate and is prescribed for priest and monk, who are the models of our Christian culture.  We're also told:  judge not; refer every question to authority; choice should be left to one's superiors; obedience is the greatest virtue; where there is power, there is not love; to be a little dreamy by fasting or exhaustion is to invite a vision; ecstasy is the birthright of every Christian; to be exulted by the wine of Christ is the goal of life.

     What a contradiction!  Yet every one of us lives in this contradiction whether we consciously adhere to Christian virtues or not.  It is built into our language, customs, stories.  Our Constitution is based on freedom and democracy -- the right to choose one's own way -- but our religious teaching has us subservient to something greater than our private selves.  Here we are directed by the will of God.  The contradiction is perhaps no more apparent than in our coins, which bear the phrase "In God We Trust."  No wonder there is a movement afoot to delete the phrase since most people no longer trust in God!

     I came back from one of my India journeys filled with the religious attitude of that mystical land and meditating on the Hindu and Buddhist way of no-choice.  I had been taught by these doctrines that the will of God is always singular and if you think there is a choice between any two alternatives you have not yet done your homework.  When the issues are clear, it is absolutely apparent what one should do; there is no choice, for the mind of God is unified and knows no duality.

     I was digesting this teaching as I opened a letter from a friend.  The masthead of his organization announced, "We Are Dedicated to Making the Field of Choice as Broad as Possible for Every Person."  East speaks to West over a very wide chasm!  I had to observe that my Indian friends live in relative peace while my American friends, so devoted to decision making, are a tense and anxious people.

     Every single virtue in this world is made valid by its opposite.  Light would mean nothing without dark, masculine without feminine, care without abandon.  Truths always come in pairs and one has to endure this to accord with reality.  To suffer means to allow; and in this sense one suffers the mystery of duality.  Whenever you do this, something immediately does that. Such is reality.

     So what now?  What do we do with this apparently insufferable contradiction?  That is essentially the question that is at the base of every neurotic dissociation and every psychological problem.  If we go at the question wrongly we are bound in a neurotic paralysis in which we can do nothing.  Then we find we are so anxious that we cannot even do that!  We cannot act or be still.  This is where many people stand and their suffering is intense. If we begin to do this, we are guilt-stricken in the presence of that -- and we are caught in the endless suffering from which there is no escape.  If we do something we enjoy, we spoil it with guilt about what we ought to be doing.  If we do what we ought, what we wish for and fantasize about spoils our discipline.  Beethoven wrote of this in musical language in the scherzo of his Ninth Symphony.  The music goes round and round and round and there's no resolution.  The final movement does find a release, a synthesis, and it ends with a great shout of joy.

     Did your high school mathematics teacher ever trick you (as an educational device) by proving to you that 2 equals 3?  There is the proof on the blackboard and no student is quick enough to catch the error:  The trick is that something was divided by 0 along the way and since this is impossible it gives a false result.  We set up our psychological equations in much this same manner and get an equally false solution.

     There is a fundamental error in the oppositions I have been laying out.  Duality is as false as the proof that 2 equals 3.  If this were the true reality, I don't think anyone could survive.  Our psychological structures would collapse.  And sometimes they do!

     Our error (thank God there is an error or life would be unendurable!) is that we use the word religious in a wrong way.  The word religion stems from the Latin roots re, meaning again, and ligare, meaning to bind, bond, or bridge.  Our common word ligature comes from the same root.  Religion means, then, to bind together again.  It can never be affixed to one of a pair of opposites.  In the preceding discussion I have pointed out the secular versus the religious attitude.  This is a flaming, flagrant error and is the seat of most of the neurotic suffering in humankind.  To think that one way of action is profane and another sacred is to make terrible misuse of the language.  There is no such thing as a religious act or list of characteristics.  There can only be a religious insight that bridges or heals.  This is what restores and reconciles the opposites that have been torturing each of us.  The religious faculty is the art of taking the opposites and binding them back together again, surmounting the split that has been causing so much suffering.  It helps us move from contradiction -- that painful condition where things oppose each other -- to the realm of paradox, where we are able to entertains simultaneously two contradictory notions and give them equal dignity.  Then, and only then, is there the possibility of grace, the spiritual experience of contradictions brought into a coherent whole -- giving us a unity greater than either one of them.

     To say that it is better to give than to receive is to indulge in the same kind of error that proves that 2 equals 3.  To focus on one of a pair of opposites as "religious" is truly a mistake.  It is only the realm of synthesis that is worthy of the adjective.

     We must restore the word religious to its true meaning; then it will regain its healing power.  To heal, to bond, to join, to bridge, to put back together again -- these are our sacred faculties.

The Miracle of Paradox

     To transfer our energy from opposition to paradox is a very large leap in revolution.  To engage in opposition is to be ground to bits by the insolubility of life's problems and events.  Most people spend their life energy supporting this warfare within themselves.  One has only to listen to any candid conversation among friends to hear a recital of all the things that are going wrong for them.  A huge amount of energy is wasted by modern people in opposing their own situation.  Opposition is something like a short circuit; it also drains our energy away like a hemorrhage.

     To transform opposition into paradox is to allow both sides of an issue, both pairs of opposites, to exist in equal dignity and worth.  Example:  I should be working at my project this morning but I don't feel like it and want to do something else.  These two opposing wishes will cancel each other if I let them remain in opposition.  But if I sit with them awhile they will fashion a solution that is agreeable to both; or even better, a situation that is superior to either one.  Sometimes a compromise may present itself that is better than opposition but is still not a good solution.  I may take the dog for a walk and then settle down to some work, trying to accommodate both my need for industry and my need for play.  But this is not true paradox.  If I can stay with my conflicting impulses long enough, the two opposing forces will teach each other something and produce an insight that serves them both.  This is not compromise but a depth of understanding that puts my life in perspective and allows me to know with certainty what I should do.  That certainty is one of the most precious qualities known to humankind.

     I am tempted to describe such a solution, but that would be misleading since every such solution has to grow from the unique situation that one faces.  Formulas or devices are never enough at such a moment.  The solution must rise from the dynamics of the opposing energies that are facing each other.

     Isak Dinesen, the Danish author of Out of Africa, once wrote that there are three occasions for true happiness in human beings.  The first is a surplus of energy.  The second is the cessation of pain.  The third is the absolute certainty that one is doing the will of God.  The first is the province of youth.  The second lasts only for a brief moment.  The third is to be won by virtue of much work -- inner work.  If one has progressed past the duality of life, one has come to the absolute certainty that one is doing the will of God.  This is the joy that every one of us knows to be our true heritage and that haunts us or inspires us as the goal of life.

     This requires nothing less than taking our two lists of virtues and instead of entering a neurotic struggle that pits one against the other, allowing them the noble status of paradox.  It is good to win; it is also good to lose.  It is good to have; it is also good to give to the poor.  Freedom is good; so is the acceptance of authority.  To view the elements of our life in this paradoxical manner is to open up a whole new series of possibilities.  Let us not say that the opposites are antithetical but that they make up a divine reality that is accessible to us in our human condition.  It is wrong to say that one of a pair is secular and the other religious.  We must retrain ourselves to think that each represents a divine truth.  It is only our inability to see the hidden unity that is problematic.  To stay loyal to paradox is to earn the right to unity.  Indeed, the most valuable experience of the Christian life is the unitive vision, that most treasured experience of mystical theology, which is won by surrendering to paradox.  The medieval world understood this experience, which took one beyond the collision of opposites and brought one into harmony with God.

     If we stay with the paradox we will find that single eye that is beyond a quarrel and a compromise.  We will find instead a unified attitude that marshals all our energy to a fine focus.  This is worthy of the term enlightenment.


-Excerpted from Owning Your Own Shadow, by Robert Johnson

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*It is instructive that the word suffer comes from the Latin sub plus ferre, meaning to bear or to allow.

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