by Niall Doherty

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In his Road Less Traveled trilogy, M. Soctt Peck writes a lot about paradox, making the point repeatedly that the acceptance of paradox is a big step towards mental health. His words from The Road Less Traveled and Beyond:

If you want to think with integrity, and are willing to bear the pain involved, you will inevitably encounter paradox. The Greek word para means “by the side of, beside, alongside, past, beyond.” Doxa means opinion. Thus, a paradox is “a statement contrary to common belief, or one that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd but may actually be true in fact.” If a concept is paradoxical, that in itself should suggest that it smacks of integrity and has the ring of truth. Conversely, if a concept is not in the least paradoxical, you may suspect that it has failed to integrate some aspects of the whole.

I believe this to be true. More and more I see everything in life as a delicate balance. You need to consider all sides and be open to all possibilities.

A few examples of paradox I’ve encountered in my own life:

Discipline vs. Flexibility

I’m usually very disciplined. I set myself tasks and goals and I follow through on the vast majority of them. I plan each week in advance, and I dedicate an hour each morning to writing, reading and thinking. I need that discipline to be at my best, but I also need flexibility. I remind myself that whatever schedule I set must serve as my slave, not as my master. So every now and then, I’ll blow off that 2 hours of work I had planned for a Thursday evening, and go hang with a friend at the pub instead. When I was in Italy last month, I planned very little in advance and had a great time embracing uncertainty.

Comparing yourself to others

It’s often said that happiness lies in not comparing yourself to others. I believe that’s both true and false. Such comparisons have often helped me. There are many people in my Toastmasters club who are better than me at public speaking. I regularly compare myself to them in an effort to pinpoint the differences, and then I go to work trying to close those gaps. This helps me improve. But I have to be careful with those comparisons. When I start resenting others for their superiority, or I start getting down on myself for not being as good, that’s when I’ve gone too far. That’s when I have to step back and remind myself that I’m the best me that’s ever lived, and there’s really no comparison 😉

Solitude vs. Companionship

As Leo Babauta recently wrote on Zen Habits, to be at your creative best, you need time alone… but you also need community and participation. Seek only solitude, and you’re likely to end up lonely and depressed. Seek only companionship, and you’ll never have time to create your best work or think for yourself. I try to strike a good balance between the two. I can often spend several hours alone, perfectly happy and productive, but other times I crave company and conversation.

Helping by not helping

It’s good to help people. But help someone too much and they become dependent on you. They can end up worse off than if you had never helped at all. Sometimes, if you really want to help someone, you have to appear to be an asshole and refuse to help them, in the hope that they learn to help themselves. You also stand to suffer personally by being too helpful, devoting so much time to others that you have none left for yourself.

Self-importance vs. Humility

To do our best work and share it with the world, we need to be convinced of our self-importance. If you believe you suck and everything you do is irrelevant, it’s unlikely you’ll ever help anyone. At the same time, we must try not to consider ourselves too important. If we fail, our ego is likely to get out of control, or we might end up paralyzed by inaction, afraid that any misstep we take will have dire consequences on the planet.

Learning from others vs. Learning from experience

I believe experience is indeed the best teacher, but it can also be a pain in the ass. Rejecting all advice and insisting on learning the hard way is a recipe for disaster. You’d be much better off reading a book on the subject and learning from the mistakes of others. On the flip side, folks can get so caught up in the reading and studying that they never actually go outside and experience anything for themselves.

Selective ignorance vs. Staying informed

I’ve written before about why you should stop watching the news, and I still stand behind that. Most news does us absolutely no good, so we’re better off ignoring it. But some news items will be relevant to us, and the only way to avoid missing them is to let your guard down every now and then. Yeah, occasionally that might mean getting smacked in the face with tales of Lindsay Lohan’s latest escapades, but that’s a chance you have to take. You can’t always know if something’s important to you without first hearing the details.

Your turn

Is there anything you’re absolutely sure of? Have you tried questioning that truth from the other side? What examples of paradox can you see in your own life?