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Great writers use paradox as one way of bringing the reader to a ‘stop,’ thus providing an opportunity to step-back and reflect.  One of my all-time favorite books is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; I recently re-read this wonderful story.  Stevenson also wrote, among other works, a book that captured his experiences traveling throughout America [Across the Plains is the title].  He captured the vastness of our country when he wrote: ‘We were at sea – there is no other adequate expression – on the plains of Nebraska.’  I remember driving from Indianapolis to Omaha in the summer of 1972 and affirm that it is like being on the ocean.

I found the following written in one of my older journals; there was no author listed and I am sure that it is not something that emerged from within my being so I will credit the most famous author, ‘anonymous,’ with the following: ‘A paradox is truth standing on its head to attract our attention.’

As human beings we are, by nature, searchers and seekers and one of the things we search for and seek after is truth and paradoxes help us as we travel along searching and seeking.  Katherine Mansfield offers us one to ponder: ‘If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral.’  What is the story you want others to tell about you as they mill about at your wake?  Are you currently ‘writing’ that story?  If not, what story are you now writing and living out?

The Chinese offered us the concept of yin-yang [gentle reader you might check out one of my earlier postings about Yin-Yang].  Some of their ancients were masters when it comes to self-contradictory thinking.  The great Chinese sage, Lao-Tzu was one of the earliest to directly recognize the deep connection between truth and paradox.  In the sixth century B.C.E. he wrote: ‘The truest sayings are paradoxical.’  Here are some others offered to us by the great Chinese sages: ‘Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.’ [Chuang-Tzu]; ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance.’ [Confucius]; ‘Failure is the foundation of success. . .success the lurking place of failure.’ [Lao-Tzu].

We Western thinkers have also been enamored with paradox.  The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard offered: ‘The paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without a feeling: a paltry mediocrity.’  Then there is Thoreau who was very familiar with Confucius and Lao-Tzu; he put it this way: ‘Truth is always paradoxical.’ [Did K. steal this from Lao-Tzu – see L-T’s quote above.]  Consider this tidbit from Thoreau: ‘I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.’  His best company, it seems, is himself.  The English historian Edward Gibbon seconded it (or was it ‘firsted it’) when he wrote: ‘I was never less alone than when by myself.’  O.K. let’s go back a bit.  In the first century B.C.E. the Roman poet Tibullus wrote: ‘In solitude, be a multitude to thyself.’  

 In closing I will leave us with a few more wonderful paradoxical statements:
‘You can’t say civilization isn’t advancing, in every war they kill you in a new way.’ [Will Rogers]

‘Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.’   [Charles Kuralt]   ‘Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.’ [John Kenneth Galbraith]

‘Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded.’  [Yogi Berra]

 

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My father was a person of few words, spoken or written.  When he spoke, we paused to listen.  One of the reasons I would pause was that my father would often say something that did not fit the context. I took great glee when he spoke this way.  For example, he was quickly passing through the family room one afternoon and I asked him where he was going in such a hurry.  His reply, as he motored by was, “I am going to see a man about a dog!’  He moved on and I stared into the empty space that was, a second before, filled with my father.  Then I laughed.

One night I had a question for my father, I was reading a story for class and the word ‘paradox’ appeared before my eyes.  I could have looked it up but I wanted a few minutes with my father and so I trundled off to his den where I knew he would either be reading or working with his stamps or coins (he had a magnificent stamp collection).  I knocked on the closed door and he invited me in.  He was reading (he was an avid reader).  I asked him, ‘What is a paradox?’  He looked up, gave me ‘the look’ that suggested that I go look it up in the dictionary; then he paused and said, ‘Among other things, it is two doctors.’  He then returned to his reading.  As I turned to leave I noticed a smile cross his face.  My father had just told me, in his way, to go look the definition up and he also gifted me with his quick humor.  I could hardly wait to go to school the next day and tell the class what I had learned.

So, gentle reader, in addition to being two doctors, what is a paradox?  The word, paradox, comes from two Greek words, para meaning ‘beyond’ and doxa meaning ‘opinion.’  Literally, then, a paradox is something ‘beyond opinion’ – today we might say that it conveys the sense of being beyond the pale of current opinion or ‘contrary to current thinking.’  In Shakespeare’s time it had a negative connotation, suggesting something that was fantastically unbelievable or even heretical (I learned this in reading Bill Bryson’s wonderful book, The Mother Tongue – if you, Gentle Reader, are not familiar with this gem I invite you to check it out).  Over time, the meaning shifted to how we use it today – something that is true even though it may seem untrue.  Here is one that was given us by the poet Robert Browning: ‘Less is more.’  We are not speaking logically when we use this now common paradox.

Now, in order to grasp a paradox one must be able to think abstractly which is probably why young children become confused when one offers them a paradox [of course, I have also met many adults whose strength is concrete thinking and they do not find them interesting and frequently experience them as a bother – the same could be said of ‘literalists’ who are not enamored with word-play].

Here’s another common paradox given to us by the French writer Alphonse Karr: ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’  Literally, the statement is false.  However, Karr provides us with an important life-lesson.  Even though I change, often dramatically, as I age I remain in a real sense the same.

One more before I finish today’s posting.  I am drawn to the wisdom of the ancients and one of these folks is the Chinese wise-man, Lao-Tzu.  He noted that to lead the people, walk behind them.  Followers must truly feel that the leader ‘has their back’ as it were.  Leaders must also be willing to serve the followers and one way of doing this is making space for them to choose which direction to go.

 

It is early morning here; I am sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops savoring a ‘free’ coffee.  It is cold outside, the sky is clear, the sun will soon rise.  When I sat down at my table my intention was to read for an hour or two before I went off to meet my two adult-children [‘adult-children’ – that, in its self is an interesting term].   We are going to celebrate a ‘next-step’ that my daughter will soon be taking.

I settled in.  I chose a book from five I brought with me, relaxed, held the book and began to pre-savor what I knew would be a gift from the author to me.  I paused.  I sat looking at the book.  The following question emerged into my consciousness: What motivated me to choose this book this morning?  As I held this question, the word DISTINGUISH came a calling.

Distinguish means to separate by differences, to perceive clearly, to choose between or to choose among.  Generally, I rely upon my intuition as a primary guide in choosing between or among.  I also rely upon my mood to guide me; although at times I find that I must choose against my mood.  Sometimes I allow logic or ‘the facts’ to guide me, but I am more likely to lead with my intuitive sense.  So even here I distinguish between and among my inner ‘guides.’

I then choose.  Ah, or is it really that I choose?  When is what I select truly an act of choosing and when is it an act of ‘habit’ and when is it an act of ‘my first or second nature?’  I don’t always know.  What I do know is that I trust my intuition, especially when I am focusing on how I might best serve others’ highest priority needs.  Frequently after the experience I am not able to explain ‘why’ I chose what I chose; I have no words to describe the ‘why.’

I believe that we are constantly choosing what ‘guides’ to listen to, what ‘guides’ to follow, what ‘guides’ to trust, what ‘guides’ to rely upon when things get dicey [this is another interesting word/concept: dicey]; what ‘guides’ to ignore, what ‘guides’ to avoid, and what ‘guides’ to ‘silence.’

I also believe that we can, via rigorous discipline develop our capacity for discernment.  How can I, or you, truly distinguish and choose without discernment?  [Discernment = the power of keen perception]  I can, and certainly do, choose without engaging discernment.  I am now speaking of ‘truly choosing’ – that is being awake, aware, intentional, and purpose-full in my choosing.  YET, I rely upon my intuition when it comes to making certain choices [Intuition = the direct knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning].  I trust that at a deep level I do discern and distinguish before I choose; my intuition is my guide.

Gentle Reader: What guides you in your choices?  Do you rely on more than one guide?  How do you distinguish them from each other?  When do you choose out of habit?  How is that different from choosing with discernment?  

 Well, back to my book. . . but, now, given my reflection, which book will I choose?

 

It is something that appears in her soul-full eyes.  It is unmistakable: an awakening to an idea, to a question that has just blossomed and has been received; a question of the heart; the soul has been engaged.  When such an experience occurs, our automatic, if not obsessive, habit of answering is suspended.  In its place a combination of wonder, mystery, excitement and curiosity moves us to a deeper search.  I love these moments.

During this sacred moment in time, I am no longer the agitated person who ruminates about the past and anticipates the future; I am calm, I am present to myself and to my friend.  Now, at this moment, immersed in the light of an awakening to an idea that engenders deep questioning, a questioning shared not by an ‘I’ but by a ‘We,’ emerges, is embraced and is honored.

During this time we do not need anything from one another except being open to sharing an experience of deep inquiry.  A gift is a deeper connection to self and to the other.  A gift is that we are more awake and aware, if just a little, to the sacredness of the moment.  A gift is that we are not concerned about ‘finding,’ for engaging and holding the question, in an attitude of searching together, has become our ‘destination.’  At this moment we are fully human beings; we are deeply connected.

For more than 18 years now, my friend and I have been engaging in deep searching conversations.  These conversations can, and do, last for hours. Sometimes we have a topic, most of the time we show up and begin.  No rushing ‘to find.’  No product.  No outcome.  No fear of the silence that supports our search.  I am convinced that because we have chosen to stop, step-back and take the time to search together we re-enter renewed; we re-enter remembering that we are not any being; we remember that we are fully human beings.

Our nature is to search and to seek.  Our nature is rooted in curiosity and mystery.  Our nature requires relationship.  We are reminded that as human beings, in the end all that matters is love and friendship.  Every great wisdom tradition reminds us, indeed admonishes us, to love the other human being as you want to be loved.  Every great wisdom tradition also reminds us that no person is an island; we are truly in this together. 

I hold an intention, Gentle Reader, that if you have not experienced this type of deep searching conversation fed by the tap roots of love and friendship that you search until you have the experience.  I hold an intention that if you have had this experience that you continue to find opportunities to once again engage in and savor such conversations.

 

A few days ago I was preparing for a meeting.  As I was preparing I was reflecting upon the ‘Purpose’ for our coming together.  After some time I stopped, stepped aside and reflected a bit on the word/concept, ‘Purpose.’  Some questions began to emerge into my consciousness.

This morning, Gentle Reader, I offer these questions to you.  Perhaps one or more of them will resonate with you and as a result you will engage in a ‘Purpose-Full Search.’ A search for what?  Who knows?  As you hold my questions others might well emerge into your consciousness – questions that will stimulate, for you, a ‘Purpose-Full Search.’ Here are my questions, listed in no particular order.

What do you believe your responsibility is to others?  

 What does it mean to be unconditionally response-able? 

 At this time in your life, what must you ‘be faithful to’ even though you might not be effective?  

 What are 2-3 of your core values? [A ‘core’ value is a value that to the best of our ability we will never compromise.]

What are 2-3 of your guiding principles?  Here are two of mine: speak with integrity at all times and be motivated by love. 

What’s the story being told about you today?  What’s the story you want others to tell about you in five years?  What’s the story you want others to be telling about you after you die?  If you were to write down the title of your life-story at this time of your life, what would it be? 

 Who are the wisdom figures in your life?  What have they taught you?  Why have you paid attention to these particular wisdom figures?  Which one(s) have you ignored? 

 In what ways do you nurture the Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, and Spiritual dimensions of yourself?  What are your favorite ways of depleting these dimensions?

 

Generally, I am an idealist not a ‘realist’ [as in ‘wait until you get into the real world’].  Generally, I see the best in others; I see their potential for greatness.  Generally, I believe in the goodness of others and hence trust that others are trying to live a good life and that others act rooted in good faith.  Generally, I believe that abundance reigns, not scarcity [in that there is enough to go around if we are ALL willing to share].  Generally, I believe in high achievement more than in competition [my experience is that high achievers are rooted in an abundance mentality].  This brief ‘context setting’ brings us to our topic for today.

Generally, I think that if we were to take a critical look at ourselves we would recognize that competition not compassion is one of our main motivators as we journey through life.  Look around.  As a culture we find ourselves deeply immersed in all sorts of competition.  It seems as if our whole sense of self is dependent upon the way we compare ourselves with others and upon the differences we can identify [as an aside, when we stress and focus on ‘differences’ there are but a few steps to then being able to guilt-free harm others].

For many of us, when asked, ‘Who are you?’ our response is ‘I am the difference I make.’  It is by our differences/distinctions, that we are recognized, honored, rejected, or despised.  Whether I am more or less smart, practical, strong, useful or handsome/beautiful depends upon those with whom I am compared or those with whom I compete.

It is upon these positive or negative distinctions that much of my self-esteem depends (this is also true when it comes to relationships, teams, families, organizations, etc.). If I stop and step-back and reflect I soon begin to realize that many family problems, race/ethnic conflicts, class confrontations, religious-based ‘wars’ [the wars religions fight for our souls, for example], disputes that occur at the local, regional, state, societal and global levels – whether real or imagined – play a central role in all of this.

One consequence (partly intended and partly unintended) is that we define ourselves in ways that require us to maintain distance from one another [physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual distance].  We also become ‘protective’ and ‘defensive’ in order to maintain our differences.  After all, who are we if we cannot proudly point to something special that sets us apart from you?

This type of competition seems rampant today and prevents us from entering into full community/solidarity with one another – it is a major block to compassion [it is also a major tap root for ‘fear’ and high anxiety].  Compassion requires connection and connection requires relationship and relationship requires trust rooted in deep caring.  I-You-We might have to give up our identity rooted in differences and replace it with an identity rooted in commonness – the tough stuff, as most of us know, is in the giving up or the letting go.  Being compassionate requires us to be disturbed and moved in/by love; competition, for example, requires us to be disturbed and moved in/by fear (think: the fear of losing).

This fear, which is very real even though it might not be rooted in the ‘real world,’ influences our thinking, our choices and our behavior; it betrays our deepest illusions: that our race, church, society, team, family, organization is NOT LIKE yours; our pride in who we are has morphed into arrogance rooted in fear.  It is easy for us then to cling to our differences and defend them at all costs – our loss of compassion, via connection leads us far too often to being able to guilt-free engage in ‘violence’ upon the other [sometimes we say this ‘violence’ is for your own good – the Grand Inquisitor, for example, could guilt-free inflict great pain on the person in order to get the person to convert, for the pain experienced now will not compare with the pain of everlasting damnation – ‘I am saving your soul, my son/daughter.’].

How about if we switch this a bit: COMPASSION – NOT COMPETITION?  A bit disturbing isn’t it?

 

Here are three brief entries from my journal, August-2009.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that humans have a tendency to go to their opposites.  Light, then, would have a tendency to move to darkness – to paraphrase the poet Yeats, the center of light cannot hold and things fall apart.  One way I move from light to darkness (and hence have things fall apart for me) is to choose to become less aware, less awake and put myself to sleep.  For the most part, I am actually aware of making the choices that I KNOW will put me to sleep.  I use to struggle with trying to understand ‘why’ I choose to go to sleep.  I found this to be a trap.  My reality is that I do so choose to go to sleep and my question is: ‘At this time, in this moment, am I willing to choose to stay awake?’  AND, if I choose to go to sleep to accept that I am choosing to do so because I WANT TO GO TO SLEEP!  I know there is more that can be said about this. . .

As a culture we are out of balance.  When we moved to embrace the mechanical metaphor at the time of the industrial revolution we moved more and more to valuing the ‘outer’ in our lives and hence the ‘inner’ has been, and continues to be, diminished in value.  Even our churches and our educational institutions have made this move for they are run more like businesses than ever before and have become more and more concerned with ‘doing’ and ‘being effective’ and less and less concerned about ‘being’ and ‘being faithful’…consider the implications…

I believe that we are embracing an illusion in our workplaces: the illusion is that we espouse that we value the ‘humanness’ of the employees.  We use language that supports their being ‘human’ and yet there are powerful metaphors afoot that de-humanize the employees for we label them as ‘cogs’ in the machine or, to use our current banking metaphor, employees are ‘commodities,’ ‘resources’ or ‘assets.’ We also act as if employees are ‘cyborgs.’  That is they are ‘living-machines’ – if you cut them they bleed and yet they have the ‘heart of a machine’ and if they wear out we simply discard them.  ‘Assets,’ and ‘Resources,’ and ‘Commodities’ we ‘use up’ and worn out ‘cogs’ and ‘cyborgs’ we discard.  There continues to be a huge gap between what we espouse and what we live out when it comes to employees and their being fully human beings…