The Freedom of Both/And

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I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a beautiful big toe. Unless they belong to a tall, slender woman, all big toes seem lumpy, gnarled, irregular, with dirt embedded under the nail.

Big toes are also super important for walking well, staying balanced, and keeping grip on flipflops. Toes are both ugly and important.

So maybe it’s a lame metaphor, but give me a chance here!

By nature, I’m an all-or-nothing person. If I can’t have everything, I don’t want anything. Don’t compromise. Don’t give me compensations. Just give me what I want, or forget it.

How similar is this to a two-year-old near you?

This is why I’m trying hard to learn how to live well in ways that don’t mirror a two-year-old.

Maybe it’s personality. Maybe it’s the brain trying to sort its data and get rid of dissonance. Maybe it’s from growing up in structure and strict morality where things were black and white. If one thing is true, an apparent contradiction can’t also be true.

It’s too messy to make sense, it’s too complex to be tidy, so get rid of gray. A toe can’t be both ugly and useful.

Except. Maybe it is.

Actually, it IS both.

In the current season of global collective grief, I’ve seen myself going to the binary way of thinking. It’s all or nothing. Suffering isn’t suffering unless it’s job loss or illness or death. Therefore, my pain/disappointment/discomfort doesn’t count. Yours doesn’t either, unless you’re an Indian rickshaw driver who lost his job in the shut-down, or your loved one died alone in a hospital.

But I’m discovering that something wholesome happens in me when I hold two apparent contradictions and hold them both as true, recognizing each, not discrediting either.

I learned this in another season and I keep bumping into it.

I loved the elegance of European fashion AND it drove me crazy and made me feel like an ugly country mouse.

I loved teaching English AND I hated not being able to be able to communicate fluently in Polish.

I love my job and my people AND I dislike Pennsylvania.

I’m really sad to cancel my summer trip to Jordan and Uganda AND I’m happy to have Plan B come together.

I’m sad about my canceled summer trip AND I’m sad for India and Minneapolis and all the college graduates who couldn’t walk across the stage.

When I was getting ready to leave Poland for good, a co-teacher asked if I’m ready to go. “Yes and no,” I said. “I’m ready to go, and I don’t want to go.” He said that makes sense because I’m too complex a person to have it all one way. (He also grew up with only sisters, so he knew how to be patient/understanding with complexity.)

Every time I answer a question with “Yes and no,” I reiterate that life is too complex to have one clean response, and it’s ok. It’s even mature and wholesome to hold many disparate emotions because it makes us larger, more empathetic, more understanding of others. When I find myself lashing out, quick to set someone straight, I’m missing a chance to hold their truth, validate their story, listen to their words as they try to make sense of their world and their experience. Validating their experience helps heal them and helps to stretch my soul bigger.

Maybe we come up with our binary statements and use our all-or-nothing lenses because it’s easier than doing the hard work of entering tension and staying there for awhile.

Also, this is very important to me:

Holding apparent contradictions never excludes truth, beauty, and goodness.

I can cry my eyes out about a deep loss AND the sun always comes up again and the hummingbirds swoop to the feeder and my people somehow love me. A big part of wholeness is opening my eyes to the beauty that still surrounds me and always will.

This often stumbles me. I tend to focus on one or the other, and dismiss one or the other: the sun is still shining, the hummingbirds are still beautiful, so I should stop crying and enjoy the beauty.

Well, maybe. Possibly.

Beauty is healing, and it can stand a good lot of focus these days but it doesn’t negate the ugly. Maturity (moving beyond the two-year-old stage) and knowing Jesus enables us to acknowledge but not stay focused on the ugly-but-true. Because there are many beautiful things that still are true and real.

I think Christians should be the first citizens to recognize beauty for what it is and call each other to pursue it, but we don’t have to do that at the exclusion of acknowledging what is hard and ugly and broken. Wholeness and healing is not so much a matter of balance (focusing on one side of the scale as much as the other side) as it is about living well with tension, which never feels super comfy.

Our brains don’t do this naturally. Like using a stiff muscle, we need gentle stretches, gradual strengthening, increased rigor to build our gratitude focus.

In the middle of crisis, none of us has good perspective. With time and listening to others’ stories, we gain new definitions of suffering and pain. Like the two-year-old who begins to be aware of another’s feelings, we start seeing our story in light of other’s stories, and we gain equilibrium, gentleness, patience, with both ourselves and others.

Embracing nuance and not denying reality, however disparate and confusing it is, I hope we can come to flourish in both/and instead of either/or.

8 thoughts on “The Freedom of Both/And

  1. Thanks for describing this elusive concept, this tension. It seems especially relevant in these times.

    This is another one for “the book.” LRM

  2. Thank you for sharing this complex yet very relevant thinking. So much to ponder here!!! You have a gift with words and bless you for sharing it with us!

  3. Good stuff. Life has tension. It adds to the plot of our story. To embrace all of life in the attitude of deep gratefulness moves us forward and moves our mountains.

  4. This spoke to my heart as we keep moving forward. Carrying deep grief in one hand AND holding gently to gratitude in the other.

  5. Thank-you for articulating this perspective so well! My journal has a list of the things I liked/positives about the season of Covid-19. Across the page is another list of the things that were hard/negatives. It was a great exercise to name both sides, and to lay them out in open hands.

  6. Excuse me, have you been living inside my head for the past 9 months? But really, this all or nothing person is me. And this need for tension is so true and vital for living fully in any place or circumstance! Thank you so much for putting this overlooked truth into such eloquent words.

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