Finding simplicity in embracing paradox

I attended a worship sharing gathering at a Friend’s house this evening. Worship sharing are Quaker meetings where we sit in silence until someone is led to speak, and then members of the group respond to that sharing and others that may have been voiced. This is a unique form of discourse in that each person simply shares their thoughts on the topic at hand without the usual requisite agreeing or disagreeing with those that have spoken before. Although previous comments obvious spark thoughts in the people who later share, it is not  a conversation or debate as many discussions are in today’s world; it is just a sharing of your own thoughts on the topic as you feel led to share.

Tonight’s topic wound up being simplicity, and the thoughts that people shared on the subject ranged far and wide, from the story of the rich young ruler in the Gospels to end of life issues to dealing with downsizing to how our pride is wrapped up in our possessions to the challenges of knowing how to apply Jesus’ words to our lives today. As always, this conversation gave me much to ponder.

One comment really stood out for me, though. Someone shared that in a recent conversation he had participated in on Facebook, one of his friends had said that trying to rationalize paradox causes the paradox to lose its power. (This is a paraphrase as best as I can remember it.) The power of a paradox is the tension in which the two sides are held; to attempt to resolve it by valuing one side of the paradox over the other removes the tension which is the paradox’s power. This comment triggered one of those odd jumps in my mind that connected several disparate things into an interesting mix.

Earlier in the day, I had read a post by Willow Feller on the Burnside Writers Collection called The Audacious Giftedness of the Irreligious. (Fantastic article! Well worth the time to read it. Besides, how can you resist a title like that?) In it, she talks about her recovery from being a Pharisee and the “presumptive judgmentalism” that had been a key part of her religious life until she realized how much damage it was doing to her relationship with God.

I have a similar relationship with Pharisaism, and I would also consider myself a recovering Pharisee. One of the things that drove this Pharisaism in me is the desire for things to be simple. I wanted there to be one single right way to do everything. That way, I could learn the one right way and thereby make sure I never got life wrong. I could just follow the rules and be assured of doing life the right way. But this also made it easy to judge those around me by this standard of the one and only right way to think, believe, talk, act, and be. It was necessary to me that everyone else be held by the same standard that I was judging myself by because it was causing me so much pain to fit myself into this little box. The only way to justify doing that to myself was to try to force everyone else into the same box with me.

The day came, however, when I just couldn’t stay in the little box anymore. It was killing me. Once I left the box, I had to let go of my idea that there was only one right way. I had tried that, and it nearly killed me. I knew there must be another answer. Initially, I assumed that I just had the box wrong. I still thought that there must be only one right way but that I had just been mistaken about what that one right way was. Gradually, I’ve had to let even that notion go. I no longer believe that there is only one right way to live. There are as many right ways as there are people because each and every one of us is different and therefore has a different relationship with the Divine.

But this leaves me in a place of mystery, a place of paradox. I don’t believe that anything goes and that there is no Truth. I believe that each of us only sees the Truth in part and through the lenses of our wounds and our baggage. I also believe that my journey and my relationship with the Divine will not look like anyone else’s. How do I reconcile this belief that Truth does exist with the belief that none of us can ever know it? How do I balance the belief that we all need the freedom to find our own path with the idea of unity when we do not agree?

This paradox is not simple. It is a much harder path than believing that there is only one right way that we all need to conform to. And yet, I have found life-giving freedom in the power of this paradox. In the tension held by this paradox, I have room to grow at my own pace and room to allow others to grow at their own pace. I am much less threatened by people who hold beliefs that are different from mine. (Granted, I do still feel threatened by those who believe that I should be killed, abused, or denied rights as part of their religious faith, but that is because I feel threatened by their actions—or the actions they desire to take against me—than because of the thoughts in their minds.)

Living in the midst of mystery and paradox is not as simple as being assured I’m right, in that sense. Then again, living in the midst of mystery and paradox is acknowledging the truth of reality. We do not all agree. We never have; we never will. To assume that I can accurately know God’s mind is foolishness and puts me in opposition to reality. In this sense, living in the midst of mystery and paradox when it comes to my faith is the simpler way because it puts me in agreement with reality, and reality is hard to fight.

I am finding that life is ultimately fuller, richer, and simpler when lived within the power of this mystery and paradox. Most importantly, it’s a life-giving place to live, and I treasure the abundance I have found in this place.

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a fragile and vulnerable place to be, so I am committed to keeping this a safe place for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight are not welcome here and will be deleted.

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