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Living With Paradoxes: An Untapped Grace?

Living With Paradoxes: An Untapped Grace?

by Geoff Colvin


Only in the void
Are all ways one:
Only in the night
Are all the lost
-Thomas Merton



An ongoing experience related to how we close our monthly contemplative prayer service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Eugene, Oregon, spawned this reflection. This service consists of a brief orientation followed by 90 minutes in silence, alternating between sitting meditation and walking meditation, and ending with a closing prayer.  After the closing prayer participants often stood around in an awkward silence with some brief exchanges as they left. The organizers thought that the closing was too abrupt and that there needed to be some structure to ease the transition. It was decided that we would have a brief discussion before the closing prayer at the next gathering. This additional step was announced during the orientation period at the next meeting and ten minutes or so was allocated for discussion. Nobody said anything and there was the same awkwardness following the closing prayer. The organizers then tried some reflective readings to improve the transition from meditation in silence to exiting the meeting. Again, participants still felt an abruptness following the closing prayer and still had a sense of being in “no man’s land.”


The group then came to the realization that a gap or void in the transition from the immersion in the privacy of meditation to re-connecting with others is inevitable. In other words, there is a shift of consciousness in leaving the inner journey of meditation and entering the outward journey to regular daily living. We came to terms with the realization that we cannot accelerate this gap, preempt it, or remove it. It is part of the process. Since then we have come to accept that we need to rest in this hiatus recognizing it as an integral part of meditation and allow it to run its course.


The Realm of Paradoxes

This experience of a new and different level of consciousness in exiting meditation led me to reflect on other life experiences where we are left hanging, as in the feeling of powerlessness from having to wait till the tension or void passes or to experience the futility in trying to force a solution. Several examples soon emerged. A good friend told me that she and her mother concluded they were alcoholics and quit drinking. However, the daughter had a relapse and was confused over whether she should tell her mother of the relapse, and thereby disappoint her mother. Or, should she keep it to herself and deal with it in her own private way. There was a clear conflict and tension from sharing something with her mother (as was her custom), or keeping it within the confines of her own heart and avoid disappointing her mother. Similarly, a dramatic incident occurred when a good friend of mine shared that a buddy he grew up with was convicted and sentenced to prison for shooting and killing his son. My friend was torn between whether he should write and reach out to his buddy in jail or whether he should remain distant and avoid communicating any sense of condoning such a heinous crime. A third example arose in talking with a grandmother who had concerns about the discipline practices her son was exercising at home with his children. The grandparent was struggling with the tug on whether to intervene and share with her son some discipline practices she thought would be helpful or stay out of the way and acknowledge that her son is an adult and has the right and responsibility to bring up his children as he deems appropriate.


In each of these cases there is an uncomfortable tension and uncertainty on how to act because of the pull or wrench from factors in opposition to each other. Specifically, do I share my relapse with my mother or do I manage it in the privacy of my own actions? Do I write to my friend in jail or do I stay away and avoid any appearance of excusing the crime he had committed? And do I offer my son some suggestions on how to discipline his children or do I step aside and allow him to manage the children in his own way? The individuals in each case experience the confusion from being caught in the middle and clearly out of their comfort zone.


In reviewing the commonalties of these examples of “being caught in the middle,” along with other illustrations not listed, it was not long before I found myself entering the realm of paradoxes. The concept of paradox seemed to capture these experiences of a very different and challenging level of consciousness. My explorations into the way we approach and manage paradoxes led me to the conclusion that the paradoxes we encounter in our daily lives provide us with an incredibly rich opportunity for growth in our spiritual path. The remainder of this reflection will center on (a) the meaning of paradox; (b) approaches for managing paradoxes; and (c) a takeaway on the relevance of paradoxes in my own life.



The Meaning of Paradox

Paradox, like so many significant words that have profound meanings, gets overused and becomes synonymous with other words such as contradiction, dilemma, contrary, opposite, conflicting choices, oxymoron, and insoluble situations. For the purposes of this article I use paradox to mean something more than a contradiction.


To begin with, contradictions are typically described as two things that cannot be true or exist at the same time, for example, early or late. If you are early then you can’t be late and vice versa. Other contradictions include: hot or cold; rough or smooth; single or married; employed or unemployed and so on. In effect, contradictions are associated with polar opposites.


The term paradox has its roots as in a seeming contradiction in the sense that there is a hidden meaning – a meaning that takes us outside our usual way of thinking. The ancient Greeks combined the prefix para- that means “beyond” or “outside of” with the verb dokien that means “to know” to form the word paradoxos. This combination, paradoxos, gave rise to the term paradox meaning a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or even absurd but in reality, expresses a veiled truth. Paradoxes, as such, are a common poetic or literary form and appear frequently in our everyday language such as: hidden in plain sight; thanks but no thanks; I must be cruel to be kind; he seems much more alive now that he is dead; and the Portuguese proverb, God writes straight with crooked lines.


In addition, scripture is replete with paradoxes. Jesus frequently used paradoxes as a teaching too, for example He said, whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39); and So the last will be first and the first last (Matt 20:16).


For the purposes of this reflection I use the expression “living with paradoxes” to capture those feelings of uncertainty from being stuck in “no man’s land” that arise from trying to deal with competing or opposing factors in our lives. From there I will try to show how such paradoxes can become an active presence of God in our lives and a transformative opportunity in our spiritual journey.



The Challenge in Managing Paradoxes

It is reasonably safe to say that most of us are not that comfortable when we find ourselves in paradoxical situations. We are out of our comfort zone and have a strong need to reduce the tension that paradoxes bring and solve or remove the problem. In very broad terms there are two basic approaches in dealing with paradoxes: (a) Problem-solving, and (b) Spiritual.


Addressing Paradoxes – A Problem-Solving Approach

Paradoxes are a common occurrence in our lives that can provide ongoing tension, confusion, and disruption. Typically, our most common approach is to utilize a problem-solving approach that is designed to reduce, alleviate, or remove the tension that arises from paradoxes. The paradox is perceived to be the result of conflicting issues that can be sorted out and solved by using one or more of the following strategies.

Prioritizing the Choices.

In this approach the paradox is reduced to choices or options where the choices are exclusive. For example, a person is in the throes of a dilemma on whether to take the next step in a relationship and seek marriage or to remain single and enjoy the relationship that is in place now and maintain one’s independence. The individual may talk to several people and decide to follow what feels right for him or her. Once the priorities are established the individual decides one way or the other. In this example the person cannot have it both ways in that if marriage is the choice then being single is not an option and vice versa. In effect the approach is to establish priorities and then decide one way of the other.

Finding a Balance.

Some paradoxes are not mutually exclusive but can be perceived as a continuum in which the factors compete with each other. The solution lies not in either/or but in finding a balance between the factors. For example, a person may experience conflict and tension over the paradox of time spent at work and time spent at home with family. Following a careful look at time spent at work and home this person decides to leave work earlier on two or three days each week and create more activities on the weekend with family to increase quality time with them. In this way a better balance between work and family is developed.

Making Concessions.

A frequently occurring paradox involves two factors that at first glance are irreconcilable between groups or individuals which can cause considerable tension and unrest. The solution in these cases usually involves honest dialogue between the two parties leading to some level of agreement and understanding. The process typically involves compromise and negotiations with certain levels of give and take. For example, a couple may be in conflict in their marriage with each party feeling they are in the right. However, following counseling, they both agree to make personal changes designed to please the other party or allay their concerns.

In all of these slightly different variations of paradoxes we have the capacity to solve or ameliorate the tension and conflicts that may arise. However, there can be considerable unrest and disquietude in the process and in living with the outcomes. Moreover, in some cases we may never really solve the problem to our satisfaction. It is here that the spiritual dimension can play an important and transformative role.


Addressing Paradoxes – A Spiritual Approach

In contrast to the problem-solving approach the spiritual approach introduces a whole new dimension. The spiritual approach invites us to live in the paradox; to embrace the tension; to accept being out of one’s comfort zone and see it as a graced opportunity for fuller union with God. So rather than putting all our energy into removing the uncertainty and not knowing, as in the standard problem-solving approach, the spiritual way is to rest in the uncertainty to see it as a call to a higher level of letting go and trusting in God. This emphasis becomes a way of being and experiencing, and not so much as seeking to understand and solve a mental challenge. This is not to say understanding and solutions should not be sought, rather it is to trust in the knowledge that God is speaking to us in this way and that a “solution” to the paradox may come relatively soon, or later, or may not come at all. In this sense the spiritual approach transforms our own efforts to dealing with paradoxes in a way that unites us more fully with God.


This practice of living with paradoxes as a spiritual pathway has been given different names by writers over time such as: The Wayless Way – Meister Eckhart; Standing in the Gap – Parker Palmer; and The Mystic Way – Evelyn Underhill. Thomas Merton went so far as to say that: “I had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me [“steadfast love”]… Paradoxically I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings.”



The Place of Paradoxes in Our Own Lives – A Takeway

It is evident from our spiritual teachers that paradoxes provide a rich opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. It comes down to how we view the presence of paradoxes in our lives. Do we see them as a necessary evil, a part of the flux associated with daily living, and something to be dealt with and removed? Or, can we see them as a special grace, a gift from God in which we are given a challenging opportunity to embrace being out of one’s comfort zone, to let go, to trust in His goodness, and to accept outcomes whatever they may be and whenever they may arise.


It may be helpful for individuals who wish to examine the relevance of paradoxes in their lives to reflect on the following questions:

  • Do I see paradoxes in my life as a gift from God? A special grace?
  • When paradoxes surface during my day can I turn them over to God? Can I embrace them as God acting in my life?
  • Can I rest in the uncertainty of waiting and not knowing where the paradox may lead me?
  • Can I do my part in addressing a paradox and, at the same time, be aware of the presence of God and open to God’s action in the process?
  • What particular paradoxes are currently operating in my life where I readily experience the tension from not knowing which way to turn?
  • How am I dealing with these identified paradoxes?



This reflection had its beginnings with a group experience following the transition from silent contemplative prayer gathering to entering normal daily activities. Participants felt a keen tension or void in moving from the relative calm and silence of the prayer service to interacting with each other and moving on to other things. I found the best description of this void in the realm of paradoxes; that is the level of consciousness that arises when we experience the tug from recurring contradictions.


It was also quite evident to me that such paradoxes are frequent occurrences in our daily lives and can readily become a source of disquiet and unease. We find, in these situations, that the reality is neither this nor that, but rather something more, something hidden.


Typically, we use problem-solving strategies in making determinations as to which direction to take in dealing with such opposites in the paradox. However, there is an additional dimension, perhaps used less frequently in dealing with paradoxes, and that is a spiritual approach. Specifically, this approach treats the paradox as a grace, as an opportunity to enter more fully into our union with God. The spiritual approach invites us to live with the paradoxes, to rest in the tension, and to accept the uncertainty of not knowing which way to turn. In this way, when we trust in the transformative action of God through paradoxes, we experience a unity in these life’s events that we typically see as opposites and become more fully one with God.


Some questions were also raised that are designed to help readers examine more closely the role of paradoxes in their own lives. The overall hope is that as we address our personal paradoxes, we also see them as an opportunity to experience God’s blessings and grace in a much richer and fuller manner.


By way of closing I have chosen a prayer written by Thomas Merton that captures the import of the significance of paradoxes in our spiritual practice:

O great God, Father of all things,
Whose infinite light is darkness to me,
Whose immensity is to me as a void,
You have called me forth out of yourself
because You love me in yourself,
and I am a transient expression
of Your inexhaustible
and eternal reality.
I could not know You,
I would be lost in this darkness,
I would fall away from You into this void,
if You did not hold me to Yourself
in the Heart of Your only begotten Son.


Dr. Geoff Colvin draws has experience as a classroom teacher, administrator, researcher and instructor at the University of Oregon, and as a national public school consultant. He also directed a juvenile detention school and a school program for youth with serious emotionally disturbances and has authored more than sixty publications, books, book chapters, journal articles, and video programs on the subject of teaching and managing students who exhibit the full range of problem behavior.


image: Gerolamo Auricchio 


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