Light is the perfect example and metaphor for life; paradoxically behaving like a wave and particle — sometimes it passes through glass, sometimes it bounces off. Likewise, our rigid rules for life need to be traded in for a flexible approach; what seems mutually exclusive, is interconnected.
Here are 7 paradoxical truths to embrace for a meaningful life:
1. To be and to do.
In the blue corner, Benjamin Franklin says “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing”; in the red corner, Alan Watts says, “The meaning of life is just to be alive. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
Both express important aspects of life. Watts is speaking against the rat-race that robs us of the joys of simply being present. Franklin highlights the potential we possess to leave an indelible mark — that great achievements are made by people no different than ourselves.
There’s value in simply being alive and knowing your presence matters. And there’s value in what you contribute to the world; to find what you’re passionate about and share that. A meaningful life is a dance between the two.
2. Traumas and triumphs.
Nobody seeks to experience traumas, yet there isn’t a single person who hasn’t endured adversity. Meaning is forged in how we respond to them.
Those who’ve overcome trials always comment on the invaluable lessons learned — that they wouldn’t go back and change a thing. That the triumph eclipsed the trauma.
Andrew Solomon gives a moving Ted Talk titled: “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He gives one example from a rape victim that leaves many speechless:
“I said to her, ‘Do you often think about the man who raped you?’ And she said, “I used to think about him with anger, but now only with pity.”
And I thought she meant pity because he was so un-evolved as to have done this terrible thing. And I said, “Pity?” And she said, “Yes, because he has a beautiful daughter and two beautiful grandchildren and he doesn’t know that, and I do. So as it turns out, I’m the lucky one.”
Andrew’s quote, “If you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes,” doesn’t mean we celebrate tragedy in a trivialized manner, but that if we shift the lens, we realize there are profound lessons in choosing to overcome trials.
3. Free will and determinism.
Some believe we have no free will, that all of our actions and behaviors are predetermined neurologically through upbringing and environment. Those in the field of neuroplasticity disagree; showing that we can change our brain, and that we’re wholly and solely responsible for what takes place in life.
Our experience gives way to both; sometimes, we freely choose to pass on those donuts, other times we’re possessed by the cookie monster. There are times we’re nothing like our parents, and other times we’re a splitting image.
To the extent that we’re able, self-discipline and willpower needs to be exerted. Ultimately with decision making, joy comes in knowing we’re in the driver’s seat rather than in the passenger seat. Whether or not free will is an illusion, feeling as though you’ve expressed your will is better than being a mindless robot. Taking responsibility is always better than seeking out someone to blame.
4. Thinking fast and slow.
To go with your head, or with your heart? That is the question.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman divides our thought processes into two systems: System 1 is fast, intuitive, and effortless; System 2 requires slowing down, reasoning, and processing data.
Thinking fast, or just going with your gut, is often tied in with the unconscious mind; science has shown that it’s incredibly accurate — once we identify a goal, our mind draws from the vast information we’re subconsciously exposed to, and responds to triggers that support the goal.
Thinking slow requires more conscious effort to fully explore an issue, but can lead to overanalyzing and inaction. Whether you ultimately decide to go with logic or intuition, realizing your physical and emotional state when making the decision is just as, if not more, important. Being in a stressed, tired, or negative state will never yield the best decision.
Think fast, and slow — but do it while you’re rested and in a positive state.
5. Change and permanence.
If you’ve heard the words, “Gosh, you’ve changed,” it was likely with a derogative tone, and remorse over what happened to the person they once knew.
To be grounded and consistent in our values is a good thing — hypocrisy has never been celebrated. Yet at the same time, returning to your high school reunion and seeing old friends stuck in the same ol’ thing comes with a sense of shame. To grow and change is a good thing — stagnancy has never been celebrated.
Iteration and evolution are two great words balancing the truths of permanence and change: you may never change careers in your life, but you’ve grown in your work. You may never leave your country, but you’ve fulfilled all your dreams.
6. Science and spirituality.
The advent of the enlightenment and scientific revolution was the great divide between faith and reason. Positivism and Empiricism became the dominant methods for determining truth, and all else was classed as superstition.
But recently, we’ve seen the traditional enemies overlap, with science validating once esoteric practices like prayer and meditation.
It’s a reminder that while truth and confidence can be grounded in facts and figures, trust and assurance can also be found in what’s not visible to the naked eye or immediate to our senses. Belief, gratitude, and faith — less tangible experiences, supported by science — all broaden and add to meaningful experiences in life.
7. Striving & letting go.
Ancient scriptures are littered with paradoxical lingo: Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Jesus said, “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.”
There’s a flow to life, a rhythm of striving and letting go — holding on too tightly is like swimming against the current. Hard work, hustling, and persistence needs to be balanced with patience, and at times, stepping away.
Following the massive success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert shares the crippling pressure of having to follow up this book with another one. With millions of anxious readers, she cranked out a manuscript over the course of one year — but it just didn’t feel right — “The voice didn’t sound like me.” Gilbert put the manuscript away, never to be looked at again, and focused on her garden patch.
The break brought clarity; rather than writing the book for the millions anticipating, she started over and wrote it for an audience of 27 close friends, who needed the message of the book.
In letting go of what the book had to be, it became what it was meant to be.
In our striving, we should also be willing to let go.