F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function (“The Crack-Up,” 1936).
This is the beauty of an oxymoron. By bringing opposites together into one phrase, it forces us to grapple with the incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory nature of life. The challenge, as Fitzgerald says, is to do so while still retaining the ability to function.
The problem is that most fail this challenge daily. We are terrible at embracing the oxymoronic nature of life. The truth is that even though we know that the world is full of paradox and apparent contradiction, we prefer not to see it.
Because it’s easier that way.
Show Me What I Want to See
Trying to reconcile conflicting ideas takes a lot of effort. So we would rather live in our tidy little box and choose to inhabit a world that works according to our efficiently organized mental models.
Unfortunately, putting the blinders on the paradoxical nature of reality comes at cost. A severe one.
At the personal level, we sacrifice our happiness. We become so attached to our mental models that we forget that they are just models. They are not reality. And when real life doesn’t work according to our model, we get all flustered and bent out of shape.
At the collective level, failure to hold space for life’s contradictions leads to a lack of responsibility and action. We often shield ourselves from conflicting views because it creates dissonance. We don’t want to admit there’s another perspective we aren’t seeing. We don’t want to have to reevaluate how we are living.
By ignoring contradictions that threaten our status quo, we end up headfirst in another state of affairs — comfortable suffering.
You may be familiar with this state. It is the place we hangout when we don’t want to pay the price of waking up, when we are either too complacent or too scared to change.
Comfortable suffering is perhaps the only oxymoron humans are good at embracing. Even if we have an inkling that something is amiss or recognize that things could be different, we stay doing the same things over and over, despite producing the same dissatisfying results.
The question is “What can we do?”
Are You Ready To Eat the Jumbo Shrimp?
This leads us to the second, often forgotten part of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote: “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
It is true. The world is gloriously miserable.
Take a look around you. There is magnificent natural beauty and stunning complexity. The technology we often take for granted are amazing products of human intellect and ingenuity. Every day I see heroic acts of kindness, large and small, that uplift the heart and spirit. Frankly, the things we’ve created and ideas we have discovered are incomprehensible considering we are just another species of hairless ape.
At the same time, the state of world affairs is dire. The degradation of our ecosystem is appalling. We have built empires on “peaceful conquest” and “humane slaughters”. Our choices have led to the deaths of countless species, the pollution of the seas, and the destitution of millions.
Yes, it is a hopeless mess. This is the Jumbo Shrimp we all live in. We must be ready to swallow the metaphorical jumbo shrimp, and in doing so, joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world.
It’s Your Responsibility To Become An Oxymoron
We cannot choose to live myopically and pretend that the other perspective doesn’t exist. We cannot confront racism without simultaneously dealing with our own privilege. We cannot preach kindness without addressing our own selfishness. We cannot truly love without acknowledging that we are also capable of hate. We must allow ourselves to be all of these things at the same time. This is our responsibility: to ourselves, to the world.
When we recognize that we are an oxymoron, we can choose to live differently. We can see that it is not just “me” singular, put also “we” plural. We are an individual collective. One body. Trillions of cells. One person. Millions of experiences. One name. Dozens of identities. Ostensibly different, yet really the same.
When we make space for the oxymorons within us, we can see that that what might appear incongruous — individual and collective, singular and plural, light and shadow, unconscious and awareness — are in fact perfectly designed to be together. Without the tension of opposites, we would have no tools to paint on the canvas of life. Within paradox and contradiction arises the fertile playground for evolution to express itself.
This is our job of living in duality: To embrace the joyful suffering. To create what seems like impossible solutions. To live with wrathful compassion. To welcome the deafening silence. And ultimately, to savor and share this tasty jumbo shrimp called life.
~ Jeffrey Siegel (A lover of Jumbo Shrimp)