I’ve long been fascinated with paradox and its place in our understanding of the world around us. When I recently heard historian Patty Limerick quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying, “There is nothing like paradox to take the scum off your mind,” I sat up and paid attention. That’s a more earthy way of phrasing the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote which I’ve often used: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Paradox is hard, but writer Anne Lamott asserts that “all truth is paradox.” Life is a beautiful gift. At the same time it can be impossibly difficult. As the old Albert King blues song puts it, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
To keep from having to keep two opposing ideas in our head at the same time, we often find ourselves moving toward certainty. Theologian Paul Tillich has described this challenge in the spiritual realm by saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Many of us are drawn to stories or perspectives or processes that provide us with a false sense of the truth. Certainty—such as a historical narrative that fits our world view without accounting for a variety of perspectives or inconvenient facts—doesn’t force us to grapple with the paradox that is at the heart of so much in our lives.
Over my recent vacation, I listened to several podcasts and one in particular stuck with me. It was a rebroadcast on “Freakonomics” of an interview with retiring Harvard President (and historian) Drew Gilpin Faust. One of her comments was noteworthy for its connection to the work my colleagues and I do at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, I believe, to this question of paradox. She said,
“Part of why I love history is it takes it outside ourselves and, at its best, enables us to look through other people’s eyes. That enables us to understand what’s contingent about our choices and our existence. We need to do that in our own time as well. We need to bridge beyond ourselves and take advantage of stories to serve as a road to other people, as a pathway to being able to look at the world through their eyes and to understand where they’re coming from, why they might differ with us on matters of policies or practice and have the stories empower us to be more than simply locked within our own selves. That seems to me an important part of what stories can do for us now.”
Understanding the rich, complex, layered stories that are told by the places we work to save at my organization—the National Trust for Historic Preservation—is hard. That work of understanding often involves the consideration of opposing views. But then we know that paradox is hard.
Embrace the paradox.
Have a great week.
More to come…