The following statement is true: The preceding statement is false.
Doubt will destroy you if you let it. Trouble is, we all doubt sometimes, and the harder we push against our doubt, the harder it pushes back. We’ve all experienced the truth of Lombardi’s words, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
Believing can be hard work.
Some people, it seems, never believe anything, while others always believe everything. If there’s a satisfying middle ground between cynicism and blind acceptance, I haven’t found it yet. I have, however, found that doubt and belief are two sides of a coin.
Mormon scripture tells us, “It must needs be that there is an opposition in all things.” And it’s probably just as well, for as Heraclitus points out, “Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.”
I used to keep a giant jar of peanut M&M’s in my office at work. I was drawn to it, occasionally against my will. Sometimes I would eat a handful, then promise myself that I wouldn’t have another M&M that day. Less than an hour later I’d find myself standing by the jar, M&M’s in my mouth.
I could never understand how my words and actions could be so different. I mean, I meant the promise when I made it. But life is full of paradoxes, isn’t it?
One might say that life is nothing but paradoxes, and that human beings are merely walking contradictions. It stands to reason— after all, we are eternal spiritual beings inhabiting temporary physical bodies.
F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It’s the opposing ideas, beliefs and motives that we hold subconsciously that fascinates me. We live with innumerable contradictions that we’re not often aware of.
To see what I mean, ask someone, “Do you agree that ‘A leopard can’t change its spots?’” Then ask if it’s true that “People change.”
Some of life’s paradoxes are simply amusing, like the page that actually would be empty if it weren’t for the words, “This page intentionally left blank.” Or the statement, “All things in moderation.” I wonder if that includes moderation too.
Other paradoxes are profoundly significant, like capital punishment: We kill people who kill people because killing people is wrong.
Some paradoxes are worthy of a lifetime’s effort to reconcile. I once considered tattooing each of my forearms with opposing advice: Shakespeare’s, “To thine own self be true” and the Latin maxim, “We are not born for ourselves alone.” A life well lived, I figured, must surely balance between these two.
Other paradoxical challenges include living in the present while preparing for the future, being “In the world but not of the world,” and harmonizing head and heart, intellect and emotion.
Some paradoxes even challenge our understanding of God. For example, “Can an omnipotent being create a rock too heavy to lift?”
Such unanswerable questions resemble Zen Buddhism’s koans, which are impossible questions— almost riddles— used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.
I attribute my inability to answer such questions largely to the feebleness of my mind, but also to the slipperiness of language and the gaps inherent in it.
Take for example the ancient philosopher Plutarch’s enigma of the Ship of Theseus. Start with a ship. Now replace any component of that ship.
It’s still the same ship, right?
Now replace EVERY component on that ship, one at a time. Once you’re done, do you still have the same ship?
To take it further, now reassemble all the pieces that you took off the original ship to form another ship.
Is that the same ship as the original?
Questions like this reinforce for me the reality that life is not like algebra class— we can’t simply flip to the back of the book and find the correct answer.
My dad used to say, “Life is simple— it’s the good guys versus the bad guys.” I, on the other hand, tend to think that life is seldom so black and white. Good people do bad things. Bad things happen to good people. Etc, etc.
Walt Whitman apparently found peace with his contradictory nature. He writes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”
Another poet, Maria Rainer Rilke, offers the advice, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I’ve noticed that my life seems to work better when I stop worrying so much about the things I can’t understand, and especially about the things that I can’t change. Particularly when I stop I trying and start allowing.
That’s the challenge I leave you with: try less, allow more. Love what is, and accept yourself, contradictions and all.