F. Scott Fitzgerald declared that the test of a first-rate intelligence is being able to hold two contrary ideas in the mind at the same time and retain the ability to function.
I’ve heard it said that “heroism” can be redefined for our age as the ability to tolerate paradox, to embrace seemingly opposing forces without rejecting one or the other just for the relief of it and to understand that life is a game played between two paradoxical goalposts:
• Winning is good and so is losing.
• Freedom is good and so is authority.
• Having and giving, action and passivity, sex and celibacy, income and outgo, courage and fear.
• One doesn’t cancel out the other. Both are true. They might sit on opposite sides of the table but beneath it their legs are entwined.
In our individual lives, one part of us wants to awaken, another to sleep. One part wants to follow, the other to run away. One part could be certain by way of inner knowing while another is dumbstruck by the lack of objective truth.
We feel both the forces of impulse and caution — of idealism joined at the hip with cynicism. We might feel we have to do the irrational to bring some rationale into our lives.
“It’s absurd to pursue your art,” the painter Willem de Kooning once said, “but it’s absurd not to.”
Either way the opposing forces occupy a space like an ecotone, a transition zone between two ecological communities, like a forest and grassland or river and desert. They compete, yes, the word means “a house divided; a system in transition.”
But they also exchange, swapping juices, information and resources, prompting diversity and resilience.
In the middle of the Amazon rain forest, 1,500 miles from the Atlantic, is a place called the “Wedding of the Waters.” There the black waters of the Rio Negro meet the café-au-lait-colored waters of the Amazon.
The two flow side by side, without mixing, for more than 15 miles. They eventually wed. First, there is a long courtship.
At the close of Goethe’s “Faust,” the protagonist and his partner, Mephistopheles, have tempered each other until they are nearly indistinguishable. It is similarly vital that we allow the tensions in life to coexist long enough to inform us, to teach us.
If we give our souls time to deliberate, perhaps it will render an insight or a response that serves competing urges.