So often in life, especially in Western culture, we are taught to see things with an either or kind of mentality. It is either right or wrong. It is black or white. One is male or female. One is strong or one is weak. There is no room in this approach to thinking for both ands. Yet life is filled with these paradoxes, which seem to enable one to stay balanced and present in this world.
Recently, I read a piece by Jos Slabbert, called The Modern Taoist Sage. He began this reflection by saying “The Taoist sage consists of paradoxes that would mortify most people, but do not seem to bother him at all:
- is detached, yet compassionate;
- enjoys life, yet does not cling to it;
- is a perfectionist, yet indifferent to success or failure;
- is a man of honour, yet avoids reaping honour;
- ignores ethics and morals, but lives a life of the highest moral order;
- does not strive, yet achieves;
- knows the answers, but prefers to remain silent;
- has the innocence of a child, but incredible inner strength.
These paradoxes are in harmony in the sage, the same way nature itself seems to be a harmonious blend of paradoxes. This makes it difficult to describe the sage in conventional terms and categories. In fact, in most societies the sage's qualities would be seen as negative, even harmful.”
A paradox is a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. Each of the above statements are examples of paradoxes. While they may appear contradictory, they are possible truths. It might not seem possible to be compassionate and detached at the same time, however, it is. The danger lies in being too much of one or the other. If one is exceedingly compassionate, for example, then it might appear as if one is weak, a push over, and easily manipulated. Conversely, if one is so detached from others that one has no compassion for anyone then one can be perceived as cold hearted and mean. It is in that balance between the yin and the yang, and between the compassion and the detachment, that one is able to experience compassion for others without making what they are going through about you. You can have compassion for their suffering and simultaneously celebrate the joy in your life. It is not an either or, but a both and.
In just about every faith tradition, there appears to be paradoxical teachings. For example, in Christianity, there is a scripture in Luke 14:26 (NRSV) which teaches that one must hate to love. Those seem like contradictory emotions, yet the teaching calls on Christians to not do one or the other but both simultaneously. Many Sikhs struggle with paradoxical feelings on January 26 of celebration, which is Indian Republic Day, while at the same time remembering that the Declaration of Sarbat Khalsa passed in 1986 places them in a state of enslavement for which they must legally struggle to achieve their freedom. Some Buddhists struggle with the paradox. Buddhism too is filled with paradoxes. For example, there is the paradox between annatto (no self) and reincarnation.
When we approach any paradoxical situation or question as an either or, then we find ourselves in conflict and contradiction with aspects of the world and ourselves. When we seek to find balance in the recognition that these contradictory experiences happen simultaneously we enter into a greater state of peace. There is a state of harmony and balance, which comes when we give ourselves permission to be paradoxical.