We prefer things to be logical and neat, black and white. But life is often “clear as mud” and refuses to play by the rules.
Light is the perfect example of the paradoxes of life; behaving like a wave and particle — sometimes it passes through glass, sometimes it bounces off. Likewise, our rigid rules in life need to be traded in; what seem like opposites are more likely interdependent.
We don’t live in an “either/or” world, but a “both/and.” Here are seven 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.”
To be and to do — both are important aspects of life. Watts is speaking against the rat-race that robs you of the joy of simply being present. Franklin highlights the potential you possess to achieve greatness and leave an indelible mark in this life.
There’s value in simply being alive and 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 has avoided adversity. Meaning is forged in how you respond to them.
Those who’ve overcome trials always comment on the invaluable lessons learned and that they wouldn’t go back and change a thing — the triumph eclipsed the trauma.
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 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 you celebrate tragedy in a trivial way, but you shift the lens and realize there are profound lessons in choosing to overcome trials.
3. Freewill and Determinism
Some believe we have no freewill, that all your actions and behaviors are predetermined neurologically through upbringing and environment. Those in the field of neuroplasticity disagree; showing that you can change your brain, and you’re responsible for what takes place in life.
Our experience gives way to both. Sometimes, you freely choose to pass on those donuts, other times you’re possessed by the cookie monster. There are times you’re nothing like your parents, and other times you’re a spitting image.
To the extent that we’re able, self-discipline and willpower needs to be exerted. Ultimately with decision-making, joy comes in knowing you’re in the driver’s seat rather than the passenger. 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; System 2 requires slowing down, reasoning, and processing.
Thinking fast, or going with your gut, is tied in with your unconscious mind. Science has shown that it’s incredibly accurate — once you create a goal, your mind draws from the vast information you’re subconsciously exposed to, and responds to specific information that supports your goal.
Thinking slow requires more conscious effort to fully explore an issue, but can lead to a deeper and more thorough understand. However, it can also lead to overanalyzing and inaction.
Whether you ultimately decide to go with logic or intuition, it’s crucial to be aware of your physical and emotional state when making the decision. Being in a stressed, tired, or negative state will skew both forms of thinking and decision-making.
Use both systems, think fast, and slow — but do it while you’re rested and in a positive state.
5. Change and Permanence
If you’ve heard the words, “Gosh, you’ve changed,” it was likely said with a derogative tone, and remorse over what happened to the person they once knew.
To be grounded and consistent in your values is a good thing — hypocrisy has never been celebrated. Yet at the same time, returning to your high-school reunion and seeing old friends stuck in the same thing ol’ thing comes with a sense of shame. To grow and change is a good thing — stagnancy has never been celebrated.
Iteration and evolution are two great words capturing the balance of permanence and change: you may never change careers in your life, but you’ve advanced in your industry. You may never leave your country, but you’ve fulfilled all your dreams.
6. Science and Spirituality
The advent of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution launched the great divide between faith and reason. “Positivism” and “Empiricism” became the dominant methods for determining truth, and all else was classed as superstition.
But recently, the traditional enemies have overlapped, with science validating once esoteric practices like prayer and meditation.
It’s a reminder that while confidence can be grounded in facts and figures, trust and assurance can also be found in things not immediately evident to your senses. Belief, gratitude, and faith may be less tangible, but no less effective in changing your reality. Facts and faith are not mutually exclusive.
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 in one year. But it just didn’t feel right, “The voice didn’t sound like me.” She put the manuscript away, never to be looked at again, and took up gardening as a 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 your striving, you should also be willing to let go.