I recently read some good advice from James Oliver in his book Affluenza. The book examines the curious phenomenon of people nowadays having more wealth and opportunity than ever, yet suffering from ever-increasing levels of emotional distress; the more Americanized a culture becomes, the more likely its inhabitants are to suffer from depression. Oliver recommends many vaccines for this disease, one of which resonated with me in particular:
Avoid black-and-white simplification, embrace complexity and tolerate contradictions. Complexity and contradictions create confusion for Westerners because they want a right answer. Almost always, there is no definitive one. If you can live with the foggy nature of reality, it is less worrying because oversimplifications for the sake of clarity will be constantly upset by contrary evidence.
Oliver came to this conclusion after doing research in China, a country that doesn’t seem to have high stress levels despite its booming economy. He found that in many cases, Chinese people have the same socially-influenced, materialistic goals as Americans, but they are more prone to adopt them as their own. In Oliver’s words, such “self-deception is essential if you are to cope with this lack of ‘self-concordance’ (having a good balance between your life and your values).”
Oliver points to Confucianism to help explain this. One of the tenets of Confucianism is the principle of contradiction and paradox, the belief that good and bad can coexist in the same object at the same time. Think yin and yang.
Acceptance of this belief apparently leads to inner peace. I can see the benefits. Clarity is nice and everything, but there are many issues which simply do not have a perfect solution. Take guns for example. Americans who oppose the right to bear arms will tell you that if no one had guns, the country would be a safer place. On the flip side, others will argue that criminals will always have guns, and so we have to level the playing field by arming ourselves. Both sides make many valid points beyond those, and both will cite history and statistics to strengthen their cases.
The abortion debate draws similar controversy. Pro-lifers argue that abortion is murder. Others will point to a 15-year old girl who was raped and fell pregnant. What is she to do? There are also studies showing that legalized abortion was a huge reason for the crime drop in 1990’s America. But then, the very woman who fought for her right to have an abortion in the 70’s and so started the ball rolling on legalizing the procedure, is now herself a pro-lifer.
Obviously when it comes to issues like these, there are no perfect solutions, only shades of gray. I believe that learning to accept this “foggy nature of reality” is a key part of personal development.