Life Is Full of Paradoxes and Contradictions, and That Makes It Beautiful
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Life Is Full of Paradoxes and Contradictions, and That Makes It Beautiful

In Promises, Promises, a book by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the key to maturity is being immature. The three "negative capabilities" indispensable to being mature are "the experience of being a nuisance, of being lost, and of being powerless," and in the words of Berliner, one more step is to accept and embrace contradictions.

Life Is Full of Paradoxes and Contradictions, and That Makes It Beautiful

"Jesus lived a life that was full of joy and contradictions and fights, you know? If they were to paint a picture of Jesus without contradictions, the gospels would be fake, but the contradictions are a sign of authenticity." - Author of The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

I asked my campus minister, Stephen, once about the contradictions between the gospels, like the various sayings attributed to Jesus on the cross, or the fact that the story of the raising of Lazarus only appears in the Gospel of John.

"Why are there so many contradictions within the gospel?" I asked Stephen.

And then Stephen gave me an answer that will stick with me for a long time. In psychology, when four people witness and experience the same event, they have vastly different perceptions of what actually happened. In psychology, this is called the Rashomon effect, which attributes contradictory interpretations of an event by the people involved in it. And the Rashomon effect doesn't mean that something didn't happen but gives greater validation and authenticity to the fact that something did.

Think about it this way: say that you, me, and two of our closest friends plan to rob a bank. If caught by law enforcement, we would definitely coordinate our stories as alibis to say that we weren't robbing the bank, and try to get away with it to make sure there are no inconsistencies and disparities within our accounts. We wouldn't have our own unique experiences. We'd have a common company line to adhere to.

As such, Luke, Matthew, Mark, and John have vastly different accounts of the gospel because they experienced it differently. And John has a vastly different account from the Synoptic gospels of Luke, Matthew, and Mark because John was one of Jesus's disciples and apostles, someone who spent the most time around Jesus. He likely simply saw things that the other three writers didn't.

If four people were to get together and make shit up about this Jesus figure, don't you think their stories would be more coordinated? For Stephen, that gave greater veracity and authenticity to the gospel. Yes, faith, inherently, means the belief that transcends reason and evidence. But the disparity between the gospels makes them so human and more compelling to an audience member such as myself.

Any middle school game of Telephone tells us that the truth and perceptions of the truth distort very quickly. People have lapses in memory and make mistakes, or people are just making their own perceptions, unbeknownst to them. What starts as "David's walked his dog" can quickly be devolved into something far more malicious and grand by the end of the game, and not by the intention of any of the kids involved. As an educational lesson on the twisting that accompanies rumors, stories in the Bible and the gospel also distort, because the writers of it were human, and that's just what humans do.

As an extension, life itself is a matter of contradictions. That might be a bad thing in a lot of our eyes like it was to me before, but I argue that that's not a bad thing, that it's, in fact, a beautiful thing that life tends to be so confusing and contradictory, so open to ambiguity. Life is chaotic, and in the words of Tim Blake Nelson, "really, life is full of contradictions. Life is messy."

One inherent contradiction in our lives is that the more we learn and know, the more we realize how little we know and how small we are compared to the rest of the world. That's because the world is a lot bigger than we ever imagined. The more we give away, it seems that the more we receive. The more we give our away our love to others, the more we are loved. The most joy we feel often coexists with the most sadness we feel.

I believe life is beautiful in that we, or our God, get to define our own stories. No one else does. That's because contradictions and inconsistencies are so uniquely human. We each have a Jekyll in us, and we all have a Hyde, and the duality between the two makes us both of them, falling into the gray area in between. We think of theft as a crime, but that doesn't make us hesitate from bootlegging music or movies illegally. We think of killing as a terrible thing, but that doesn't stop us from stepping on the next spider or cockroach we see. We don't like it when people make rude comments about us behind our backs, but that doesn't stop us from doing the same to other people.

I recently wrote about the contradictions that are part of the human condition. 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 the contradictions make us human, but they make us creative.

Walt Whitman once made the bold statement in "Song of Myself" this: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." And so our contradictions remind us that we are large and that we contain multitudes. A lot of preachers struggle with doubt in their faith, but wrestling with that doubt just makes them better preachers and ministers. Environmentalists fly planes and smoke cigarettes all the time. Wall Street bankers care about poverty. "Living a contradictory life is profoundly, perhaps definitively human," writes David Berliner of Sapiens. Critical thinkers don't escape contradictions, but they embrace them.

"While most humans struggle to maintain a sense of psychological unity, contradictions produce destabilizing breaches in the self," Berliner continues. "Whether conscious or unconscious, these fissures nourish creative inspiration, which can be interpreted as a way to resolve or sublimate internal oppositions."

We lie to protect people we love when the truth will hurt too much. But we prioritize honesty at the same time. Scientists can value empirical, hard-nosed evidence while being very religious in their private lives. "Humans live peacefully with contradictions precisely because of their capacity to compartmentalize," Berliner says. And we believe we aren't contradictory to not feel that we are cognitive dissonant acts.

In Promises, Promises, a book by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the key to maturity is being immature. The three "negative capabilities" indispensable to being mature are "the experience of being a nuisance, of being lost, and of being powerless," and in the words of Berliner, one more step is to accept and embrace contradictions.

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