Life itself is a contradiction. In every case of death, there is birth and in every case of birth, there is death. Every day is full of contradictions, we face them every day, we are made of them. Walt Whitman got it right when he wrote in ‘Song of Myself’ (1855):
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Our contradictions remind us that we are large and that we contain multitudes.
We, humans, are structurally made of contradictions, living peacefully, sometimes painfully. We are strong when we are weak. We are in control when we are dependent. We have power when we surrender. And not only do our contradictions make us human, but they make us creative. Have you ever wondered how many contradictory thoughts you have in a day? How often do your thoughts contradict your actions? How frequently do your feelings oppose your principles and beliefs? Most of the time, we don’t see our own contradictions – it’s often easier to observe such variability in others. But you are as full of contradictions as I am. We try to live peacefully with our contradictions because of our capacity to compartmentalize. And when contradictory actions or emotions jump out of our box, we are very good, perhaps too good, at finding justifications to pacify cognitive dissonance. Most humans struggle to maintain a sense of psychological unity; contradictions produce destabilizing breaks in the self. Whether conscious or unconscious, these cracks nourish creative inspiration, which can be interpreted as a way to resolve or sublimate internal oppositions. I believe this can be said of all domains of creation. Perhaps art, literature, science, or philosophy wouldn’t be possible without intrapersonal contradictions and the desire to resolve them. We try to patch up our wounds by using art, because pain doesn’t show up on a body scan and can’t be measured in a test. As a result, many chronic pain sufferers turn to art. Our emotions are linked with our contradictory thoughts and world. Everything is contradictory; even the phrase that I wrote is full of contradictions.
There’s no one who lives according to the Stoic principle of Plutarch, in “perfect agreement between the maxims of men and their conduct,” and this isn’t a cause for crisis. We, humans, can sectionalize emotions and thoughts. In certain realms of life, some behaviors and thoughts are acceptable but not in others. For instance, lying might be seen as a heroic act when done to protect victims from a brutal regime, but in a friendly relationship, it is intolerable. In labs, scientists can produce evidence-based research in the context of their professional lives, then go home and attend religious prayers addressing the existence of invisible entities.
There’s a very interesting ritual of Jewish people: ‘slapping’ rituals performed at a girl’s first menstruation. In the past, among Eastern European Jews, when a girl told her mother that she had got her first period, the mother would slap her daughter’s face and, at the same time, exclaim ‘Mazel tov!’ (congratulations). Here we can see that the contradictory nature of the messages forms the foundation of the ritual and the necessary components for its efficiency.
“Living a contradictory life is profoundly, perhaps definitively human,” writes David Berliner of Sapiens. We shouldn’t escape contradictions, we should learn to embrace them.
We need to accept and recognize contradictions, our contradictory self, and life.
A mature human being is someone who has the ability to discover and embrace contradictions, even if, at times, we struggle to renounce them.