A paradox is when opposite sides both seem true. Yet, there is a unity underlying this apparent duality, this schism. To try to understand one side you need the other. There’s a bit of Catch-22 in this, as elaborated below. It is the role of the mystic, the philosopher, the fervent worshipper, the storyteller, the songwriter, yourself, to go questing, to seek this unity, and to bring unity back and heal the schism. image, Ascending and Descending, by mc escher, 1960.
That isn’t to say the duality is false or unreal. Both opposites exist; otherwise, it wouldn’t be a paradox. But the unity exists too, which is in itself a paradox. Sometimes that unity needs pointing out, needs stressing. ‘Simplify!’ cried Thoreau. However, there is a point where things become too simple and one side looks like its opposite. So, it might be a question of scale–maybe we’re looking too close, or not close enough (for example, see the Fermi Paradox, below). We need to honour both the duality and the unity for a fuller picture, for a better understanding. Paradoxes abound. While some are not true paradoxes, they all present good mental exercises. Kierkegaard wrote that ‘one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.’ (Philosophical Fragments, 37). Not surprisingly, some paradoxes even qualify as spiritual disciplines.
Sometimes when you come full circle you no longer recognize where you started out. That’s cuz things have changed while you were gone. You’ve changed. Thirty years ago someone introduced me to Doris Lessing, Germaine Greer, and other writers from that half of the sky. I don’t pretend to know that half, but the paradox is, I can’t be complete without it, so, at some level I must understand it. I searched the world over, but ironically, I didn’t have to leave home; paradoxically, I had it with me all the time. Maybe I should read Lessing and Greer again. Maybe I’ll recognize the place this time. image of lessing by elke wetzig.
Robert Gilman’s interview with Danaan Parry (left) and Jerilyn Brusseau (right), ‘Essential Peacemaking: Bringing together the oldest adversaries: women and men’, is even closer to home than reading Lessing or Greer: ‘Nowhere do the deep uncertainties over the right balance of interconnection and separation affect us more personally than in the area of gender relations. If we can’t make peace here, we are unlikely to be able to have peace on a societal or international level.’ image of parry from earthstewards.org; image of brusseau by mark harrison.
Essential Peacemaking co-creator Parry ‘came to the importance of working with gender issues from a frustrating search for what works for effective conflict resolution.’ He says, ‘most people don’t want to look there. They’d rather kill each other, or they want to get fixed up just enough to cope.’ He’s worked in many parts of the world and knows first-hand that Arabs and Israelis or Catholics and Protestants, will continue to fight ‘unless they are willing to look deeper – at their real fears. In my experience, these fears don’t lie with religion or with land or territorial imperatives; they lie deeper than that.’
Parry says that gender issues are ‘a crack in the door into a very deep, and usually dark and scary, but incredibly productive and alive place, where, when we are willing to go there, we really do resolve our conflicts. It’s an invitation to intimacy, and almost all conflict is a cry for intimacy.’
Brusseau notes that despite the many differences, there is ‘a lot of commonality across cultures. The issues women voice and the values we express seem like a shared deep taproot into something that is woman.’ She sees ‘the same kind of thing in the men as well.’
However, first you have to deal with the guilt. ‘It’s a “Catch 22”,’ says Parry. ‘The guilt [of doing bad things] is so heavy that you can never get beyond the guilt to change the system [that encourages doing bad things], which then propagates the old system, including more guilt…. The good news is that regular folks have the skills, caring, and creativity to [deal with the guilt]. In my experience, men sharing with men about being men is a very exciting, cutting edge process. We get into it and we love it. A level of trust builds amazingly quickly where we can begin to respect one another, and we can start to bring up otherwise unspeakable questions.’
One paradox is that I rely on stuff I think we’d be better off without, like plastic. My lenses are plastic, parts of my wheelchair are plastic, my keyboard is plastic, parts of my trike are plastic, the cars and vans I use have plastic parts, of course. If I could still play, my instruments would have lots of plastic. Better than ivory, right? image from wikipedia.
My attempt at reducing plastic by eating vegan Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday (I’m a vegetarian on the other days) is less than a drop in the bucket. Totally symbolic. If I were in a different culture without plastic, without plastic lenses, without plastic for my wheelchair, without plastic for my keyboard, I’d do just fine. It’s not like a hockey strike where you don’t know what you got til it’s gone, or having Stephen Harper for Prime Minister where you don’t know what you got til it’s too late. I wouldn’t miss because plastic I never had it.
We watched ‘Hunting the Hidden Dimension‘ on TVO, a doc about fractals. (Mandelbrot, the mathematician who first described fractals, made this TED Talk: Fractals and the art of roughness). Fractals mathematically describe a paradox (though sometimes math cannot describe something that words can, and vice versa): how do you describe infinity within finity, such as measuring a coastline or designing fascinating textiles or placing a really long radio antenna within a restricted space? Even finding out how long is a piece of string can involve fractals–and that’s just the beginning of human understanding. Turns out the rest of nature has been using fractals for millions of years, maybe billions. image of a fractal antenna from wikipedia.
Paradoxically, fractals bring ‘unity to the worlds of [both] knowing and feeling,’ observes Mandlebrot, ‘and, unwittingly, as a bonus, for the purpose of creating beauty.’
Speaking of odd combinations, how about electronic and acoustic sounds? Like synth and cello, or heavily remixed banjo? As a musical genre, it even has a name: ‘folktronica‘. But it’s not enough to be odd to be a paradox. The terms have to be normally ‘mutually exclusive’, like infinity-finity, like a particle-wave, like man-woman. Makes you wonder just what is ‘normal’ or ‘mutually exclusive’. At one level there is a duality and difference. At another, unity and commonality. Like optimism and pessimism, we move lifelong back and forth between the two. image of efterklang by rasmus weng karlsen.
Dr Ron Eglash finds cultural expressions of fractals, especially in Africa, some of them quite explicit. We find fractals in the non-human world, too. Sometimes we call them ‘self-organizing‘. Cosma Shalizi writes that ‘something is self-organizing if, left to itself, it tends to become more organized. This is an unusual, indeed quite counter-intuitive property: we expect that, left to themselves, things get messy, and that when we encounter a very high degree of order, or an increase in order, something, someone, or at least some peculiar thing, is responsible. (This is the heart of the Argument from Design.) But we now know of many instances where this expectation is simply wrong, of things which can start in a highly random state and, without being shaped from the outside, become more and more organized.’ image by christoffer rasmussen.
Is it a group of birds (individuals) or a flock (an organism)? Is it a bunch of rocks to frack or blow off mountain-tops or is it a Gaia planet? Is this universe dead or alive? Are you dead or alive? Living is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it can be nice, and sometimes not. Risky. Eglash notes that culturally humans have formed or encountered self-organizing ecologies. He warns of their sometimes not-so-benign expressions, such as AIDS or capitalism. Sometimes they’re nice, sometimes they’re not. image of mountain-top mining by jw randolph.
Why is capitalism not benign? Eglash doesn’t elaborate, but I’d say because people use it to horde material wealth, rather than share it. Capitalism in its pure form (take note, neocons and fountainheads) is like a pathogen. It uses everything available and doesn’t share. It is competitive, rather than cooperative. It sickens, even kills, and it doesn’t care. But I care, and so do many others. Perhaps this growth in compassion is the next stage in our evolution (but first see ‘stories’, below). image of Dr Ron Eglash and child from wikipedia.
the paradox of poverty
is that to be rich you have to be poor
to know you have to believe
to have courage to change you have to accept what you cannot change
to be free like the willow-tree you have to bend
to join the universe you have to go it alone
but you’re never alone,
so have faith, my love,
courage, joy, and freedom
and be rich in your poverty, now and forever
If I tell you some of the paradoxes in the award-winning Stories We Tell, that will spoil it. Written and directed by Sarah Polley (who turned 34 on Tuesday), she blogs that ‘each of us had a deep and growing need to tell the story, different parts of it, in different ways, with emphasis on different details, in a way that reflected our own experience and what was most important to us as we are now…. What I wanted most was to examine the many versions of this story, how people held onto them, how they agreed and disagreed with each other, and how powerful and necessary creating narrative is for us to make sense of our bewildering lives…. With the inaccuracies, with the new insights that I may not have arrived at on my own, with the broken telephone that happens when “concentric circles of people” … begin telling their own stories without experiencing the original versions. That is what the film is about anyway and after five long years I’m actually looking forward to its arrival in the world, and the inevitable mess that comes from a story being told and retold.’ Another paradox is that while each of us has his or her own version of the story, we also need a version of the story that is common to all. Thomas Berry proposes such a story, which I discuss in the next post. image by nicolas genin.
More family stories, and these come with apologies: in the doc A Sorry State three Canadian government apologize to filmmaker Mitch Miyagawa’s parents (Japanese) and stepparents (Chinese, Native) for past racist actions. But ‘is saying “sorry” enough?’ asks the presenter, TVO. ‘Can a word fix past atrocities and heal victims’ pain, or is talk cheap?’ Returning to her childhood residential school, a woman says healing starts with forgiveness, and forgiveness starts with revisiting the trauma. But what if revisiting the trauma involves a point system (tied to money: more abuse = more points = more money), only to be denied cuz the system can’t find your records, so in the end you have little healing, little forgiveness, only fresh-again trauma? Or if revisiting the trauma brings forgiveness and healing, yes, but that’s just the beginning? image from TVO.
Jean Vanier has another paradox. He wonders how ‘after all these years of immense technology there are still millions of people who have no fresh water? How is it that they are without food, or without adequate medical help for all those who have AIDS?’–Living Gently in a Violent World, 70. image from the Vancouver Sun.
My personal paradoxes are many. Among them I wonder if I am a pessimistic optimist, or an optimistic pessimist, or what? I remain an agnostic. I just don’t know. Some say there is a god. It may be a benign god, or a betting god. Or goddess. Others say our reality is really a computer program, some comically, some seriously, some dramatically. Australian aborigines say this is a dream. Some modern scientists hold this is just one of many universes. Buddhists suggest you co-create your own reality (so you better know your spokes!). Or is this like a Truman Show? A hundred years ago we wouldn’t have been talking about computer programs or holodecks or the Truman Show. What will we be talking about a hundred years from now? image of bertrand russell, famous agnostic, from wikipedia.
Does it matter what reality is like ‘out there’? Is that one of the unanswerables, one of the ineffables? The more I know, the more I know I know less (Chris Anderson agrees, and advises us ‘to stay curious’), which makes me simultaneously arrogant and humble. Like, the universe is unbelievably big, and it may only be one of an infinite number of universes (btw, this is the best hyperlink of the bunch; if you’re gonna click on anything, this is the one; the previous one is a close second–way better than watching hockey at 4am–or if you’re into changing the world, check out the Becky Tarbotton video below), yet paradoxically I remain unique.
Ah, the vast universe makes me very insignificant. Somehow, though, on this planet, lava becomes a red monkey. Who needs arches and holodecks, when you realize we’re living inside a miracle, one that produces a red monkey from lava? Part of the miracle is ageing, finding stuff out, staying curious! You can’t age if you’re immortal. You can’t find stuff out if you’re omniscient. So, embrace ageing. We’re all doing it, all the time! Vanier writes, ‘If I’m getting older, that’s OK…. It’s part of my journey.’ (Living Gently in a Violent World, 72). image of the beautiful, critically endangered red-ruffed lemur from amazonaws.
My cup runneth over. Well, actually, first it was the 12 muffin cups in the oven. Stinky! Two days later it was the newly installed toilet. Stinky, again! Then I got a flat tire. My air runneth out. image from wikipedia.
Here’s a neat-o animated short that poses the Fermi Paradox: ‘Given the vast number of planets in the universe, many much older than Earth, why haven’t we yet seen obvious signs of alien life?’ image from forgetomori.com.
Are you the same you if all your parts, even your brain cells, have been replaced by, say, cybernetics or teleportation, a paradox that thrives 21st century but began thousands of years ago as the Ship of Theseus? As Joanna Macy pointed out to the Dalai Lama, what is evolution but a form of rebirth? My atoms are dinosaur atoms. We literally are stardust. Not just were, nor just will be, but are. Everything’s changed, but the song remains the same, the pattern is there. image from popphilosophers.blogspot.ca.
Mike Nickerson recognizes the importance of patterns. (So do Nashville musicians.) Patterns replicate, sometimes exactly, sometimes with variation, and thus extend your identity beyond your lifespan. Walt Disney formed a corporation that today is the number one producer of children’s books in the world. And not just books for children. It also owns Marvel Comics, ABC, ESPN, and many, many more. They use a lot of paper. Paper that was not ecologically sourced, until a handful of people at Rainforest Action Network pressured them, as described by Becky Tarbotton in this video. (Becky died just after Christmas.) image of tarbotton by hroeyer.
More importantly than ecologically sourcing paper, saving rainforests, even affecting climate change, as both Tarbotton and Nickerson point out, is changing our hearts, the pattern of understanding who we are and how we relate to the rest of nature, and that takes centuries. Nickerson and Suzuki (writing about Tarbotton) both use the word ‘overwhelming’, as in ‘Sometimes the odds seem so overwhelming that it’s tempting to run and hide, to give up. Sometimes the gains seem so small and the setbacks so great that we can’t think of much to do beyond looking at our kids and saying, “Sorry.” But if there’s one thing we can learn from Rebecca Tarbotton and the many other dedicated people in the world, it’s that we can change the world if we care, think and act.’ (Suzuki). image of nickerson from sustainwellbeing.net.