a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.
If there is one word that defines new awareness in my forties, it is paradox. The fundamental notion that ideas we hold as opposites can be true at the same time. For a woman with well defined principles, it’s a disruptive realization that deeply held beliefs can be easily flipped on their head. It’s an awakening to the profoundness of AND/also, where she once saw only OR/either. Paradox did not show up suddenly in my forties. It has been there all along, suppressed by an unconscious belief that feelings must be congruent, always complimentary to my core values – absolute representations of self. But there is nothing remotely absolute about emotion, it’s fluid and changing – waves crashing into a shore, redefining the shoreline and then receding back into the ocean, only to return day after day to shape us once again.
When each of my boys arrived, I fell hard and fast and was completely consumed with love for them. I also realized quickly that spending an entire day nursing, cleaning spit up and watching Baby Einstein videos felt like I was dying inside. How could both things be true? How could I love this breathtakingly beautiful little person more than anything and decide that I needed to get away for 8 hours each day? Was it normal to seek the stimulation of leadership and complex business challenges, a parallel universe that had absolutely nothing to do with this new love in my life? Even years later when they were potty trained and out of car seats, the routine of motherhood occasionally made me feel claustrophobic, particularly around other moms who ate up every single minute of playground time. As I would leave the annual elementary school Chanukah show and the audience would rave about the creativity of the children, how charming they found the one hundred twenty minute production, I didn’t brag that I wanted to engage in self-harm with a plastic knife by the 4th act. Now you might be thinking, that’s not paradox, that is a guilty parenting truth that only a few dare commit to a public blog. However, society has long inferred that a woman can love her children, or her career, but can’t be truly committed to both.
The healthiest thing I have done for myself in this decade is to stop obsessing about the legitimacy of feelings, including those that are seemingly in contradiction. Feelings are not right or wrong – they are our deeply personal reactions to events and circumstances. Paradox offers an alternative framework to evaluate our truths, particularly during a time in which so many Americans feel so damn sure that their own deeply held beliefs should cancel out other perspectives.
Situations we might view as possible contradictions:
A person may be deeply spiritual AND feel disconnected in spaces reserved for worship and spirituality.
A woman can be pro-choice AND fully understand the devastation of terminating a pregnancy.
A child can be fiercely independent AND depend on the unconditional, unwavering love of his parents. This one is playing out in real time.
A person can work toward wealth and status in his professional life AND feel this pursuit is a betrayal of his heart. (Think of the CEOs who leave it all behind to start philanthropic missions.)
A white woman’s heart can break over racial disparities and Black Lives Matter AND she may still be uncomfortable by race conversations, even as she attempts to truly understand and repair the injustices.
A woman can chose a serious career as a business leader AND want to shoot intimate portraiture. Let’s get back on track here, Tiffany. We’ll sort that one out later.
Society has infinite paradoxes too:
We want deeper emotional social connection AND yet we spend less time with other humans. (Perhaps one of the biggest paradoxes of our generation.)
We have greater ability to travel the world, to explore other cultures, AND we know far too little about our neighbors.
We have better medicine AND less healthy lives.
The more we have, the more we want. We have lost appreciation for that which we need.
In our relationships, we want security and predictability AND to be impulsive and free. Consider the rate at which people change careers and partners as primary examples.
One of my very favorite quotes is by Bertrand Russell, and I learned it in the context of financial investing. “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” The more we learn about the world, the more patience we exert to develop ourselves and opinions, we better understand how little we knew before. We stake out our positions early and often, as if in a race to the finish line. We allow too little room for debate, exploration or even healthy skepticism of these early formed opinions. Consider how little fact finding people do themselves these days on social media. There are simply too few things in life that come with certainty. What’s that saying? Something about death and taxes?
Life is complicated, and emotion is complex. A fully integrated human is going to hold their own yin and yang. We can’t possibly begin to understand each other if we adhere to a singular belief system. Valuing paradox requires kindness, the kindness we show to each other and ourselves when we acknowledge that life is often a giant game of Catch 22. Leaning into this awareness has allowed me to judge less, listen more. Our lives are that shoreline, constantly shifting with the tides. The moon and the sun are visible in the sky at the same time. Day and night overlap. So too can our realities.
Many of the things I want in my life now are beautiful paradoxes. I love the free form of art and precision of science. I need a sense of stability and yet I desire excitement, change and challenge. I desperately want to see the world, and I don’t want to leave my home. I am enthralled with my career, and also want to retire very young. Rather than fight the forces, I’ve decided to let myself feel every tide, pulling me in equal and opposite directions.