Embracing the Contradictions and Complexities That Make Us Human
Man is an embodied paradox, a bundle of contradictions - Charles Caleb Colton
As I sit here drafting my own obituary in my head, I’m completely and utterly stumped. I cannot fathom how to marry the morass of complexities and paradoxes that exist within me into some blurb that actually reflects my essence and my truth and which is suitable to run in the local newspaper. First, surely there is a word limit. Perhaps it can be done, but certainly not by me. Brevity is not among my strengths. Also, I’m certain they don’t allow for the inclusion of four-letter words - no matter how appropriately placed I think they are. How do you obit me without using at LEAST one of them? This shit is hard, y’all!
Now before you go getting all alarmed that I’m plotting my own demise, which I most certainly am not, let me give you some context. It’s no secret that I’m sort of a recovering Netflix addict turned podcast junkie. These days, most of my podcast library skews toward the expanding of the mind, emotional intelligence or spirituality variety. Make no mistake, however, I still have plenty of binge worthy shows in my Netflix and podcast arsenal - especially true crime. In pretty much every true crime episode, there will be a snippet of an interview with someone who knew the victim describing them in a few short sentences, often painting them with a very broad, singular brush stroke.
Oh, Jodie was so bubbly and upbeat. She always had a smile on her face. Lit up the whole room!
That Miss Tammy. She always wanted to be a mother. She lived for those kids and dedicated her life to them.
Sarah? Now she was the very definition of devout. You look up good Christian girl in the dictionary, and I guarantee you’ll see Sarah’s face smiling back at you. Wouldn’t be surprised if there was a halo hovering over her wholesome little head!
Really? Jodie was ALWAYS happy and grinning? Was Tammy’s identity ENTIRELY wrapped up in motherhood. Did Sarah epitomize DEVOUT right down to the glistening halo? Of course not. Each of them was an actual human, and all humans have complexity and contrast. I know these are just quick outtakes from an interview with someone who knew the victim, but it got me thinking: What would my soundbite be if I were unfortunate enough to be the focus of one of these true crime shows? Naturally, because who doesn’t think about that?
As my mind wandered and I began crafting my own, the obvious quickly became apparent. Nothing more than a snapshot of one or two parts of me would be possible. One person might describe me as tactful and polite, while another might say outspoken and opinionated. One person might say patient and forgiving and another quick tempered. Different people are going to sum me up in different ways because each person views me through their own unique lens. Like all people, I’m multi-faceted, and I reveal different parts of me depending on the circumstances and relationship. And, let’s face it, my mood. I certainly can be bubbly and upbeat like the aforementioned Jodie, but no one could pass a lie detector test describing me as being that way all the time (and if they try, perhaps they might be worth looking into as a suspect, Mr. Detective).
So, then I started thinking about what my obituary might say. With a slightly bigger word allowance maybe I could sum up, in a clear and concise way, who and what I am. An admittedly morbid way to go about it, but it really was just an exercise in self-reflection. Setting aside the fact that I was doomed to fail as being succinct is a prerequisite, I fared no better with my obituary than I did my soundbite.
I am many things, and they don’t always line up neatly. At times they’re even at odds with one another. I can say I’m optimistic. As a general rule. But I can also be a realist or a downright “glass-is-half-empty” kind of girl. I can say I’m driven, but I’d have to gloss over that period where I wasn’t. I can say that I love my kids to the ends of the earth, but I can’t say that I view motherhood as my defining purpose. I can say that I’m filled with gratitude, but there are times when the voice in my head is a whiney ass fool. I can be verbose - full of detail and description - and I can also give simple, one-word answers without context or color. I can be introspective and thoughtful; I can be sullen and moody; I can be boisterous and full of joie de vivre.
At times, I have relished the paradoxes that exist within me (See, e.g., my straight “A” over-achieving college years while decked out in goth gear complete with that so-deep-purple-it’s-almost-black lipstick. Yeah, I was a vision...). At others, I have found them frustrating and confusing, especially in the last few years as I my emotional intelligence and range expanded more quickly than I could keep up with. Going from living the majority of my life as an automatic kind of girl - forward, reverse and neutral - to more of a 5 speed, all-wheel driver - has been quite bumpy and challenging to maneuver at times. At times it’s felt like the emotional whirlwind version of a person who struggled their whole lives with extremely poor hearing and then received a cochlear implant. For the first time they can hear birds singing, babies crying and the sound of their own laughter. Totally disorienting and totally joyous at the same time. Yeah, it’s been a bit like that.
Enter Episode 161 of the On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast (you knew it was coming…). Malcolm Gladwell was the guest, and they had what I found to be a thought-provoking conversation on this topic given that I have been working to reconcile the internal (and external) criticisms of my sometimes sweet and sometimes salty personality. Okay, fine. I know I’ll get called out on this one, so I’ll be honest and add sometimes sour as well.
Mr. Gladwell, a self-described sentimental and weepy man who, as the son of a mathematician, is also [paradoxically] hyperrational, says that he feels “Under no compulsion to resolve that tension. Rather the opposite. I should explore that tension.” He goes on to say “Parts of our character are formally in conflict, but they’re not actually in conflict. What we do as human beings, is we navigate our way around those kinds of things. We get pulled in one direction or another and we kind of split the difference - we kind of figure out when do I want to be this and when do I want to be that.”
Mr. Shetty is a bestselling author, podcaster and social influencer who resides in Los Angeles. He’s also a former monk who emersed himself in that life in India for three years. He says he’s often asked how he can still claim to have monk elements in his life when he now lives such a seemingly externally driven life. In response he says, “I love being a paradox, and I enjoy the paradoxical nature of how my mind can go between the two and find connections. And I’ve only ever seen that present me with more opportunities.”
Explore the tensions, rather than try to reconcile them. Got it. Find connections among your paradoxes, and look for the opportunities they may present to you. Check. And you don’t necessarily need to view them as weaknesses, even if others might. Says Mr. Gladwell, “…our minds like to simplify and box and that’s why we see contradictions as controversy or we see it as a weakness…if you are teary eyed and sentimental one moment and a mathematician in the other - it’s almost like one of them is a weakness. Why is it that we have this propensity to judge a contradiction or a paradox or someone who embraces polarities as a weakness or character flaw?”
Ain’t that the truth! For most of my life I saw myself in a very black & white fashion. An example: I am strong. I can handle anything. I have broad shoulders and can take on anything for anyone. I do not cry. Tears are a sign of weakness. I do not feel sad (or admit to feeling sad), for that too is a sign of weakness. I do not ask for help. I give help. I can handle anything on my own. And I can handle everyone else’s load too. For I am strong. It is who I am. Back then, that’s probably what I’d have wanted my sound bite to be. Oh, that Amy. What a strong girl she was! And probably my headstone too - Here lies Amy. One helluva a strong bitch.
Have you ever heard such a load of horse pucky? Hell yeah, I’m strong. But being sad or crying doesn’t make me weak. It makes me human. Allowing myself to feel, to be with, and admit to my vulnerabilities, makes me that much stronger. It allows me to know myself so much better when I let them exist and breathe rather than ignoring or hiding them. The seemingly paradoxical concepts of strength and vulnerability can both be true at once. It is an emotional truism that is fast becoming more universally understood and accepted (thank you, Ms. Brené Brown), but it was a huge head-scratcher for me for a very long time.
I know that I am not unique or alone in this. We are all, by our very nature, complex and contradictory creatures. It is part of that which makes us human. Rather than reject or criticize myself for my contradictory and paradoxical nature, I am working to explore those tensions at the same time I embrace them. In them I know I will continue to find truth. My truth. And growth. I’m allowed to have good moods, and bad moods. I’m allowed to let the tears flow holding my teenager’s old onesies at the same time I feel thrilled that he got his drivers permit. I am allowed to feel trepidatious about the future at the same time I look forward to it with excitement. I am allowed to be outspoken and non-conflict adverse while hating being a lawyer. I am allowed to be a feminist and embrace the occasional advantages my feminine wiles afford me. I’m allowed to be incredibly private in many ways and yet air a big ole’ stinking pile of my dirty laundry here in these pages.
All of these things can be true. I can be contradictory. I can be complex. I can be paradoxical. Because we all are. Rather than look at these as weaknesses, or imperfections, we can choose to accept them as part of our humanity. And we can explore them to get a better understanding of our truth. As Mr. Gladwell says, “I think all of us at our best do that.” Isn’t that what we all we want for ourselves? To be at our best? As much as we can. When we can. Knowing that it’s never going to be always that we can.
So for now, the obituary remains unwritten. I do feel a bit sorry for the person that is charged with writing it. I’m a complicated, contradictory mess. I’m cool with that in a messy masterpiece sorta way. But I certainly don’t want to be the one to sum me up in fifteen lines. Much less have it be curse word free.
Listen carefully to the paradoxes of life.
Find a way to embrace both horns of the dilemma.
- Randall Huntsberry