To suffer the paradox
I’ve been rereading Jungian analyst Robert Johnson’s Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. It’s a little gem of a book that explores a much loved topic in Jungian psychology: the shadow side of our personality.
My interest in the book this time was less about the shadow – I’ve written on the shadow in a previous article – and more about Johnson’s descriptions of the terms paradox and opposition.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a paradox as “one (such as a person, situation, or action) having seemingly contradictory qualities or phases”. Paradoxes can exist either as inner or outer contradictions, in the way we struggle to come to terms with opposing energies both within ourselves and out in the world.
Paradox vs opposition
A useful way of seeing paradox is as the coexistence of opposites, another favored topic in Jungian psychology. According to Johnson, the major difference between a paradox and an opposition is the psychological attitude we adopt in the face of opposing tendencies. Johnson states: “If we accept these opposing elements and endure the collision of them in full consciousness, we embrace the paradox”.
I find Johnson’s use of the word “collision” interesting, suggesting a strong, even forceful crash of energies, a big clash or impact. This is no gentle harmonious blending. Opposites are part of our daily life: hot and cold, life and death, night and day, rest and activity. If we live long enough, we will experience (and hopefully appreciate) them all. Resisting opposites is an exercise in futility, and yet we spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources trying to do so. In the process we waste valuable psychic energy that we could harness and use in the service of something useful.
This collision of opposites can result in conflicts in our daily lives and warring factions within ourselves: you want to exercise (and know you will feel better for it) but it feels so good to laze on the couch instead. You agonize about whether to leave or stay in a job or relationship that has both rewards and unpleasant consequences, leaving you paralyzed with anxiety and uncertainty.
Johnson describes oppositions and contradictions as “meaningless”, “useless”, “barren”, “destructive”, “static” and “unproductive”. A paradox on the other hand is creative. Adopting the proper psychological attitude towards a paradox can allow the energy of creativity to flow, transforming “the pain of contradiction” into “the mystery of paradox”.
The tension of the opposites
Johnson discusses humanity’s incapacity to tolerate opposites. We tend to make up our minds about things, situations, and people in rigid and uncompromising ways – without nuance, without exploring the gray area in between things. Something or someone is either this or that. In our political and religious debates, you are either with me or against me. This is an oppositional stance.
Jungians talk about the “tension of the opposites“ to describe how contradicting values, perspectives, or states of mind can exist simultaneously, seemingly in opposition to one another. In Jungian parlance, the psychological task in such situations is to consciously suffer the tension of the opposites “until the third appears”.
According to Johnson, we experience opposition and contradiction when we reject the paradox. So instead of rushing into premature action in order to avoid the discomfort of a problem, we are better off allowing ourselves to sit in it for a while. We develop the capacity to feel the discomfort and allow it to reveal valuable information about ourselves and the troubling situation. Easier said than done.
Johnson’s ideas got me thinking about how our attitudes towards life’s dilemmas are described in our languages and cultures, thus revealing whether we are embracing the paradox or fighting the contradiction. He reminds us that the Latin root meaning of the word suffer is “to bear or allow”. When we suffer the paradox, we allow the opposites to be present in a non oppositional way. We do not use defensive strategies to rid ourselves of the discomfort.
Eastern philosophies encourage us to develop the capacity to tolerate ambiguity and opposites. I’m reminded of the Sanskrit word samatva, often translated as “equanimity”, which is used in Hindu and Buddhist teachings and in mindfulness practices. It describes the mental skill of learning to balance opposing tendencies evenly in our mind, weighing them equally in turn. Another of my favorites is the German word jein, a combination of ja and nein – yes and no. A simple yet powerful invitation to take a nuanced position between two extremes.
While Johnson’s insights contain deep wisdom, in typical Jungian style he does not leave us with easy answers on how to handle life’s paradoxes. Am I comforted, satisfied? Jein.
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