Holding the Paradox
Updated: May 17, 2021
It has been so terribly, terribly long since I wrote here. In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of a loss of purpose, any words seemed inconsequential, in some ways they still do. However there is a need in me to write down what I am feeling and thinking, a need to un-knot a certain tension that has been building regarding living in the paradox of present times.
The picture you see is one that I am proud of taking. I think the light and composition work incredibly well and I think it is a beautiful image. It is also a terrible one, as what you see is smoke from a devastating forest fire that hit the north of Sweden a couple of years ago, both beauty and destruction are contained within it. I see it is a reflection of the present pandemic. Many people I have spoken with have shared how the lockdowns have forced them to appreciate the smaller things in life, how their perception has been altered and their values have changed. They talk about noticing the seasons, appreciating their garden or walks in the park more. How they miss human touch and contact, hugs, handshakes, a tap on the knee. Things that they previously took for granted and hardly noticed have taken on importance and meaning. The great smoking swell of the pandemic has given them a stronger focus on the things that truly matter.
As I write this I keep pausing to try and formulate what it is I want to convey and share with you all - I am so full with words that I am mute, so full of feelings that I am numb and it is this sensation of holding two opposing feelings/thought/truths that the pandemic has really highlighted for me.
I think it relates very much to the idea of 'the danger of single story.' Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie talks about it eloquently here. The more I reflect on this, the more I realise that this is what it is to be human, the ability to hold two opposing truths at the same time.
For me, one of the ways I have found succour whilst I have been separated from my homeland, family and friends, has been through stories and podcasts. The more I have read and heard, the more the paradox of life has made itself known. I listened to physicist Frank Wilczek as he talked to Krista Tippet on the On Being podcast and I became curious when he stated that the deepest truth lies in two opposites which are both true. He talked about the work of Niels Bohr and the development of what is known as ‘Complimentarity.’ As an example light travels both in waves and particles but you cannot see them both at the same time and all colours are one thing seen in different states of motion. For me this truth is the underpinning of what it is to be human.
Let me explain; I pour my love into the people I love, (and into my dog whom I love too) and this outpouring is done in the knowledge that it can lead to pain and to grief. I know that my husband, my children, my friends, my dog, others whom are part of my heart, may die before me, may leave me, may turn against me and yet I cannot withdraw my love as a protection against this. Love and grief are two truths that exist opposing each other and yet only existing because of each other. I read somewhere that grief is love with nowhere to go. It is the great outpouring with no vessel of containment, an outpouring that can be so vast it can destroy all in its path. (As I re-read these words the word ‘trust’ steps forward and offers itself, nudges me gently so that I can remember that we love on trust, we live on trust; trust and hope.)
This is how it has always been. One of the hardest thing we do as humans is hold the opposing complexities of our stories as well as the stories of others. Often, if we have gone through a painful divorce or the breakdown in our family, we will say things like, "he never loved me, he was always a bastard!" We feel this is easier than accepting that fact that we were loved and that love was true and then it changed and the love disappeared. That thought is too complicated and the acknowledgement of the truth of the love causes a pain, a grief. I truly believe that what people end up feeling towards us does not negate what they did feel at another time. You may have siblings, who as adults do not speak to each other but their discord and negative feelings do not negate the fact that there was time when they totally loved each other. That love was true. Who they became does not invalidate who they were and what they felt.
The complexity of human nature is nothing new and is shown repeatedly in the ancient myths of Oedipus, Cassandra, Inanna, Theseus, the list goes on. They were all heroes, goddesses; vulnerable yet courageous, loving yet vicious, compassionate yet greedy and their stories were immersed in cognitive dissonance before it even had a name. I believe one of our great failings is to think that we have never been in a time like this before or experienced things like this before or in thinking that this time is unique – it is not.
The great myths vibrate with emotional truths and patterns that lie under ‘new’ events. They are the skeleton of the being that is mankind. In returning to them we can find solace in the knowledge that we have been here before and we found a way through.
It strikes me though, that in many of the ancient myths and in much of Shakespeare’s work, there is the idea of the 'Order of Things.’ (Even in ‘The Lion King’ you have the idea of ‘The Circle of Life.’) The idea that there is a certain cyclical order for everything and it is when this order is damaged or resisted that chaos begins. I think about that in terms of the pandemic. Is there a natural order that was disrupted and thus caused such destruction….? My mind instantly goes to ‘The Green,’ the planet, its inhabitants, all of them, trees, plants, animals. The natural order is being damaged. In my podcast, Un-Stuffing Our Story I talked to ´Gardener and Advocate for the Green,` Alys Fowler about what daily things we can start to do to become aware of the voiceless members of our planet, the trees, flowers, seeds, mushrooms, all of whom we cannot exist without, though they can easily exist without us. She offered some tips on re-establishing contact with those on whom we are so dependent. I am practising them daily in order to nudge the natural order back a little, seed by seed, observation by observation and you are invited to join me. Take a listen to the podcast to find out how.
There is something about the impact this damage to the natural order that troubles me, like a string of celery stuck between my teeth it niggles me and will not easily be got rid of. Let me try and extricate it here. I know that in some way as humans, we crave and need that paradoxical natural order. I think the starkest example of this is the paradox of death and grieving. Many of us who have experienced the death of a person they loved, often found some comfort in being with that person as they died. There is a paradox. You do not want the person to die, it will pain and hurt you to witness it, yet you understand on some deep level - in the marrow memory of the bones in our mythic skeleton - that it is how it should be and this action can give you comfort and peace also. During the pandemic we have not been able to follow that ‘natural order,’ not been able to sit with the people we love and witness their final breath. This has led to many people feeling adrift in terms of their grief and carrying a guilt; a rough, sharp stone of discomfort in the place where relief should be. What do we do with that? I have no real answer but I think we need to accept that we are doing the best we can at this moment. There may come a time when we can do better, but for now, this is all we can do. Exhale, release that burden, and continue placing one foot in front of another as we wade through the news of more deaths and loss, more natural disasters, more war and violence. Yet let us also pause and open ourselves up to the news of the collaborations that took place to find a cure, of health workers and aid workers and peace workers coming together, of the untold joyous news; of babies born, couples reunited, teenagers helping the frail and elderly, purses and bags being found and returned to owners …. All the news that is often not newsworthy but takes place nevertheless, with little fanfare or recognition.
I sit here thinking of the benefits and costs of the information we receive through digital media. I often feel myself overwhelmed and feeling impotent and unable to move in the flood of statistics, deaths and news from all over the planet. I am not sure that we as humans (or perhaps just me) were not meant to carry so much. There again is paradox, the paradox of knowing so much more, yet that often making us feel so much less. By that I mean that we can become de-sensitised to the news and become numb and un-feeling and also that we feel we are less, less worthy, less beautiful, less fit, rich, able, artistic .. the list of comparisons continues.
At the great age of 57 I have finally come to realise that I only have agency over myself and my story. I want and strive to be a person who brings some positive change into the world. I would like to be remembered as being kind and funny. I look at the news and feel stupid at times for wishing for something so small. Yet I hope it will be enough as I am doing the best I can and I have to trust and I have to hope that I am enough and that what I am doing is enough.
Here are links to podcast and organisations and books that have helped me. I hope they offer you comfort and curiosity too.
Theatre of War - an organisation that uses the re-tellings of myths to create discussion about current events. Bloody brilliant!
Poetry UnBound - part of the OnBeing Organisation which is truly wonderful.
The Corrymeela Podcast - beautifully reflective and with the great Pádraig Ó Tuama again.
The OnBeing Podcast - This has been my medicine when I needed meaning and comfort.
I am doing book recommendations on my Instagram Page for Un-stuffing Our Story. Take a look soon and sign up for the podcast here too. But anything by Brené Brown and the book UnTamed by Glennon Doyle are tops! Plus Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser.
Stay trusting and hopeful