Why does fear call us to be courageous?
Why is patience often the best course when we're in a hurry?
Why does our hostility often dissipate when we realize the role our own frustrated desire plays in stoking resentment?
Opposites are complementary. The contradictory things that most folks believe defeat a project, destroy a dream, or invalidate a theory actually work together to make a whole. To put it another way: What contrasts can also complete.
I realize this may not make sense to you initially, but stay with me, for this idea has profound ramifications for your personal life.
In our spirituality, contradictions are more than common. They are necessary. Life is not a battle, nor is it a debate. Though society and our scarcity- and greed-driven intellect may honor victory, and though victory can be appropriate and sweet and truly satisfying, the soul seeks integrity and happiness depends on it.
Here, integrity means more than being honest or morally upright; it means being whole.
Remember that lesson we learned as children, where the ends of magnets repelled each other when held one way, yet when held the other came magically together? Opposites attract. The same phrase is used as an aphorism to describe romantic love.
Well, it's true of all life.
We find joy and solace through understanding, accepting and uniting opposites. It's how we feel complete. In this sense, irony, the coincidence of contrasting pairs, is not a quirky happenstance or just a literary term, it's the road to becoming whole.
We live in a world of vast human diversity. Animals, planets and geology all seem to underline tangible differences as well. Yet, last century, when the Apollo astronauts glanced back from space, our planet's unity stood out -- its beguiling, beautiful wholeness. When we visualize our home as that blue marble in space, we have a sense that all life forms here are passengers on one ship, that we share both a common heritage and a common fate. Though we are diverse, though we often are at war, we are also one.
I've been reading -- savoring slowly -- Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He surveys myths from around the world to find the common story of the hero, who unites opposites to bring new spiritual vitality to his or her people. Diversity/unity, male/female, death/birth, desire/hostility, God/human, physical/spiritual -- the list of opposite pairs is endless. But the point isn't that so much of life seems split into opposites or that there are so many, the point is this: The main task of the hero centers on connecting the opposites, even if it means going to Hades (or heaven) to get the job done.
Campbell quotes from Taoism (yin and yang) and from Hinduism (Kali who is "the harmonization of all the pairs of opposites ... the goddess [who] at once creates, preserves and destroys"). He refers to the Christian tradition of seeing Jesus as both man and God and the idea that heaven lies inside us ("the kingdom of God is within").
Campbell quotes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: "The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony ..."
The synthesis of opposites, according to Campbell, sometimes comes through great trials:
The hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or by being swallowed [e.g. Jonah and the Whale].
But such assimilation need not be so drastic or dramatic in our own lives -- though many of us have known that "being in the belly of the whale" feeling. For me, connecting the opposites can start with just 10 minutes a day. In that time, I try to link myself (the temporal) with the love and light I feel inside (the eternal). I call this abiding love and light "God" (though the eternal energy has many names).
I often find balance in these 10 minutes. I use my prayers of gratitude and hope and love to connect my changing, moment-to-moment experience with the energy and values that I believe are constant -- both inside me and beyond me.
Sometimes it's as easy as remembering and honoring those people who went before me, our ancestors, remembering that I am a part of a continuing cycle of parents and children -- all bound by the potential for love, all invigorated by our own free will, all connected through God. This understanding both grounds and liberates me -- another glorious irony. And I find a place where opposites reveal a common root and a common flower.
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