Reflections on the Inner Work of Holding Paradox

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - 5:30am
Photo by Eric May

Reflections on the Inner Work of Holding Paradox

If I didn't have the idea of "holding paradox" to help me understand myself and the world around me, I'd be more lost than I am! For me, holding paradox means thinking about some (but not all) things as "both-ands" instead of "either-ors."

So many of our troubles, personal and political, come from either-or thinking. For example, when I'm talking with a person who holds religious or political beliefs that differ from my own, either-or thinking can create a combative situation: "I'm right, so he/she is wrong. Therefore, my job is to win this argument by any means possible." How rarely such encounters bear fruit!

But both-and thinking can lead to something much more creative: "Maybe I don't have everything right, and maybe he/she doesn't have everything wrong. Maybe both of us see part of the truth. If I speak and listen in that spirit, we both might learn something that will expand our understanding. We might even be able to keep this relationship and conversation going."

Think of how much more civil and creative our conversations across lines of difference would be if we thought that way more often! We'd be working to create a container to hold our differences hospitably instead of trying to win an argument.

Of course, like everything human, this issue begins inside of us, in how we hold our own internal paradoxes. If we can't hold our inner complexities as both-and instead of either-or, we can't possibly extend that kind of hospitality to another person.

Here's an ancient truth about being human: we cannot give gifts to others that we are unable to give to ourselves! That's why "inner work" done well is never selfish. Ultimately, it will benefit other people.

"The Angels and the Furies" by May Sarton challenges us to do some of the inner work that can help us hold the tensions of personal and political life more creatively. As I struggle with "the angels and the furies" within me, I often re-read this poem to get re-grounded.

The struggle is not easy. But I always find myself comforted by what Ms. Sarton has to say in the third and fourth stanzas about what it means to be human. I hope you'll find it as meaningful as I do...

The Angels and the Furies
by May Sarton


Have you not wounded yourself
And battered those you love
By sudden motions of evil,
Black rage in the blood
When the soul, premier danseur,
Springs toward a murderous fall?
The furies possess you.


Have you not surprised yourself
Sometimes by sudden motions
Or intimations of goodness,
When the soul, premier danseur,
Perfectly poised,
Could shower blessings
With a graceful turn of the head?
The angels are there.


The angels, the furies
Are never far away
While we dance, we dance,
Trying to keep a balance
To be perfectly human
(Not perfect, never perfect,
Never an end to growth and peril),
Able to bless and forgive
This is what is asked of us.


It is light that matters,
The light of understanding.
Who has ever reached it
Who has not met the furies again and again?
Who has reached it without
Those sudden acts of grace?

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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Life is so full of paradox, and May Sarton and Parker Palmer are two people I admire so much for their abilities to put into words our struggles with the human condition.

Important topic, a few points to add:
If we understand the "emotional truth" and distinguish it from external truth (reality of world) then we can approach this understanding that every thing has some truth in it.

There is a dialogue between inner work and outer work. Our relationship with our inner voices and selves, and our relationships in the outside world interact and inform each other. This is fascinating, if one can use the dialogue productively!

The final issue is that if every thing has some truth in it, then I cannot use "absolute truth" as my guidance. Every person will have to find and work toward his/her own path, or find out which version of the truth to follow. I mean, holding opposites/paradox is not the end, it's the beginning, then you need to figure out how to make decisions in daily life in the face of this.

I hope this makes some sense. This topic is the focus of my life these days, so I get very excited about it!

What a positive and uplifting post. Thank you.

Centering Prayer helps me embrace paradox. As I slow myself down and sit in solitude, I am better prepared to embrace paradox in my day to day noisy life.

Human beings trying to live a spiritual life.

As a member of a family suddenly or slowly shattered by mental illness, I find myself in the paradox of acceptance and opposition, grief and self judgement. It is hard to comprehend who I am now? Now I must regard myself as someone very different from my previous reflection. Thank goodness for this place.