Ambivalent is not generally considered a desired state of being. We don’t hear a lot of, “Oh, I am so freakin’ ambivalent about you!” No, it seems we are supposed to be clear and certain, our feelings focused, sure, and — here’s the catch — monolithic.
Me, I rarely feel one thing. I get a call from a friend asking me to go out and I think, “Well, I kinda wanna. But I’m tired. And driving’s a drag. And while I might want to go out, I’m not sure I want to go out with that friend — not tonight. But maybe it’ll be fun. And I should get out more often. And I haven’t seen him in ages.” I closed this train of thought but I could go on, Beckett-like.
Ambivalence is not just a state but a necessary state. It is constitutive of this thing we call life: to feel is to feel multiple, even opposing, things. Freud imagined us as being constituted by a fundamental ambivalence of life and death, Eros and Thanatos. And I know just how he feels.
Of course, just because it’s constitutive doesn’t mean it’s desired. We constantly refine, edit, discipline ourselves. This is what it means to be part of a culture, part of the social. I may be aroused in the street but I don’t pleasure myself there and then, not usually. So perhaps ambivalence is a “natural” state — whatever that means — to be overcome. We seek to cut down ambivalence with the scythe of certainty.
But, frankly, I like ambivalence. Not always and on all things. It’s nice to have certainty, to be sure and clear as one takes on the world. But such certainty also yields assholes, adamant pricks, self-deluded righteous idiots. Such monolithic pathos makes for crappy, simplistic art, lousy reductive television and movies that are at once a colossal expense and bore.
Life happens in and amongst the play of sentiment. Life is not just ambivalent: it’s multivalent. We think and feel multiple things at the same time. And rather than trying to subdue or quash said teem, I want to speak and feel in elaborate baroque harmonies.
Imagine, for a moment, when talking with a lover if all parties embraced ambivalence, welcomed multivalence. Imagine the generosity and the openness towards the other this would entail. We wouldn’t demand that our lovers love us every second with every fiber of their being. We’d know, we’d understand, we’d expect — nay, we’d welcome — their ambivalence, their indifference and their distaste. And we’d know that their love was even greater for it.
Imagine if film, TV, art all did the same. The Wire wouldn’t be the exquisite oddity it is — such complexity, such greatness, would be the norm and our theaters would be filled with models of behavior that weren’t inane but, on the contrary, fostered generosity, multiplicity, the beautiful play of complexity that is life.
It’s true that leadership seems to demand monolithic focus. A leader, we imagine, speaks with certainty, with clarity of vision. I know this demand has kept me from a certain professional success — clients ask me questions and I see all the different sides. In fact, I’m very good at seeing all the different sides and laying them out. I see complexity clearly. Someone, however, has to pull the trigger. And that person is rarely me. Why? Because I’m ambivalent.
Still, I return enthusiastically to this ambivalence. I don’t try to silence it. On the contrary, I work as best I can to articulate it — to give voice to the chorus of sentiments that stream through me, that are me, that are life. To me, the teem of life is beautiful and I’d have it no other way.