“Clear as mud” isn’t the kind of answer we’re looking for. We prefer logical, neat, and linear. The problem is, life doesn’t play according to our rules.
Light: the perfect example and metaphor for life; paradoxically behaving like a wave and particle—some of it passes through glass, some of it bounces off. Likewise, our rigid rules for life need to be traded in for a flexible approach; often, what seems mutually exclusive, is interconnected.
Here are 7 paradoxical truths to embrace for a meaningful life:
1. To be and to do.
In the blue corner, Benjamin Franklin says “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.” In the red corner, Alan Watts says, “The meaning of life is just to be alive. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
Both express important aspects of life. Watts is against the rat-race that robs us of the joys of simply being present. Franklin highlights our potential to leave an indelible mark—that great achievements are made by people no different to yourself.
There’s value in simply being alive, knowing your presence matters. And there’s value in what you contribute to the world; to find what you’re passionate about and share that. A meaningful life is a dance between the two.
2. Traumas and Triumphs.
Nobody seeks to experience traumas, yet there isn’t a single person who hasn’t endured adversity. Meaning is forged in how we respond to them.
Those who’ve overcome trials always comment on the invaluable lessons, and wouldn’t go back to change a thing.
Andrew Solomon gives a moving Ted Talk titled: “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He gives one example from a rape victim, reflecting back years later, that leaves many speechless:
“I said to her, “Do you often think about the man who raped you?” And she said, “I used to think about him with anger, but now only with pity.”
And I thought she meant pity because he was so un-evolved as to have done this terrible thing. And I said, “Pity?” And she said, “Yes, because he has a beautiful daughter and two beautiful grandchildren and he doesn’t know that, and I do. So as it turns out, I’m the lucky one.”
Andrew’s quote, “If you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes,” doesn’t mean we celebrate tragedy in a trivialized manner, but we shift the lens and realize there are profound lessons in choosing to overcome trials.
3. Free will and determinism.
Some believe we have no free-will, that all our actions and behaviors are predetermined neurologically through upbringing and environment. Those in the field of neuroplasticity disagree; showing that we can change our brain, and we’re responsible for what takes place in life.
Our experience gives way to both; there are times we’re nothing like our parents, and other times we’re a splitting image.
To the extent that we’re able, self-discipline, willpower, responsible action needs to be exerted. Ultimately with decision-making, joy comes in knowing you’re in the driver’s seat rather than the passenger seat. Whether or not free will is an illusion, feeling as though you’ve expressed your will is better than being a mindless robot. Taking responsibility is always better than seeking to blame.
4. Thinking fast and slow.
To go with your head, or with your heart? That is the question.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman divides our thought processes into two systems: System 1 is fast, intuitive, and effortless; often described as “going with your gut.” Science has shown that it’s incredibly accurate. System 2 requires slowing down, reasoning, and processing data. It requires more conscious effort to explore an issue, but can lead to overanalyzing and inaction.
While the right system depends on the situation, going with logic or intuition isn’t as important as your physical and emotional state when making the decision. Being in a stressed, tired, or negative state will never yield the best decision.
Think fast, and slow—but do it while you’re rested and in a positive state.
5. Change and permanence.
To be grounded in your values is a good thing—hypocrisy and inconsistency is never celebrated. Yet at the same time, running into old friends stuck in the same thing ol’ thing comes with some shame. To grow and develop is a good thing—stagnancy has never been celebrated.
Iteration and evolution are two great concepts balancing permanence and change: you may never shift your career, but you become a master in your craft. You may never leave your country, but you’ve fulfilled all your dreams. Good things come in change, and good things in staying the same.
6. Science and Spirituality.
The scientific revolution created a divide between faith and reason. Positivism and Empiricism determined truth, and all else was classed as superstition.
But recently, we’ve seen the traditional enemies overlap, with science validating once esoteric practices like prayer and meditation.
It’s a reminder that while truth and confidence can be grounded in facts and figures, trust and assurance can also be found in what’s not visible to the naked eye, or immediate to your senses. Belief, gratitude, and faith are less tangible experiences, but every bit valid and important.
7. Striving and Letting Go.
Ancient scriptures are littered with paradoxical lingo: Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Jesus said, “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.”
There’s a flow to life, a rhythm of striving and letting go—holding on too tightly is like swimming against the current. Hard work, hustling, persistence needs to be balanced with patience, and at times, stepping away.
Following the massive success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert shares about the crippling pressure of any follow up work. With millions of anxious readers, she cranked out a manuscript over the course of one year—but it just didn’t feel right—“The voice didn’t sound like me.” Gilbert put the manuscript away, and turned all her attention to her gardening hobby.
The break brought clarity; rather than writing the book for the millions anticipating, she started over and wrote it for an audience of 27 close friends, who needed the message of the book.
In letting go of what the book had to be, it became what it meant to be.
In our striving, we should also be willing to let go.