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The Power of Embracing Opposites in Your Life

How I’m starting to see the world not in terms of “Either/Or” but as “Both/And.”

Photo by Alexandra K on Unsplash

Light vs. dark. Good vs. evil. Right vs. Wrong. Positive vs. Negative. Happiness vs. Suffering.

Opposites dominate our lives. We want as much of the good stuff as possible, and as little of the bad stuff. For the first 30 years of my life, I was obsessed with how to maximise happiness and minimise suffering. In the aid of happiness, I went to war with everything that made me unhappy. I wanted to eradicate pain from my life and replace it with joy.

I now see things differently. Opposites don’t have to be about having more of one thing and less of the other. I’ve slowly learnt how to embrace the opposites in my life. To see the world not in terms of “Either/Or” but as “Both/And.” Reality is too complex to be neatly sorted into a long list of goods and bads. Go to war with reality and you’ll almost certainly lose.

Embracing the opposites in your life is about holding two things in tension and then looking for creative solutions to the conflict. It’s an ongoing, skillful process. Neither side wins out over the other. Think of it more as a conversation, a negotiation. The aim is peace, not dominance.

Get started with three fundamental opposites:

The first step to embracing opposites is to start noticing them. Typically, when faced with tension or conflict, we either run away or go at it all guns blazing. Embracing opposites begins with simply holding that tension, noticing the positives and negatives on both sides of the equation. It’s a kind of acceptance — giving each side their due respect, recognising they’re here to stay.

Here are three fundamental opposites to get us started:

Me vs Us

This is a big one. You want to be your autonomous self, to do what you want, to follow your dreams and passions. You don’t want to be pushed around by others, to have to please people, to only do what’s expected of you.

AND, at the same time, you don’t want to be alone. As Esther Perel says, “the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” Human beings are social animals. And you’re a human being too. You want to form meaningful bonds with others, to become part of a larger “we” or “us” — something beyond yourself and your individual needs and desires.

Instead of skillfully holding this tension, you’ve probably flipped between prioritising Me and Us at different times in your life. As Jules Evans wrote in a recent article on ambivalence, “When I’m in a relationship, I think of becoming a monk. When I’m on retreat, I can’t stop thinking about sex.”

The thing is, you’re both an “I” and a “We.” That’s what it means to be human. It may be tempting to work on yourself before being with somebody else. But that’s not how it works. Human beings discover who they are in the presence of other human beings. It’s tricky and messy. It’s a dance.

Now vs. Later

So you’ve probably seen those cute YouTube videos of kids trying to avoid eating a marshmallow so they can get 2 marshmallows later (if not, they’re hilarious — check them out). The kids who delay their gratification end up being more successful, have higher status and incomes and have better relationships as adults. The upshot: be kind to your future self, develop self-control, and commit to your long-term goals and projects.

AND, if you only live for tomorrow, you’ll eventually find out that tomorrow never comes. Ultimately, there is only today. As Annie Dillard wrote, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” What matters is presence, not productivity. Fast-forward from kids eating marshmallows to people lying on their death beds and what people regret in life is not having let themselves be happier, not having lived more in the moment.

Of course you should bear in mind your future self, be prudent, and exercise self-constraint. And of course you should live each day as if it were your last — life is too short and precious to do anything else. But wait, those two things are in complete contradiction with each other! What should you do?

Resist swinging from prioritising the future to prioritising the now. You need to learn how to do both, simultaneously, all the time. You need to live, as the Stoic philosopher Seneca counselled, both wide and long. You won’t find out how to do this in a self-help book. It’s much harder than that. It’s an art.

Head vs. Heart

In making your way through this confusing path of opposites, you’re going to need some guidance. So where do you turn — to your head or your heart?

Some say stick with your head. Your heart only gets you into trouble after all. When it comes to making major life decisions, your cool rational faculties — not your hot-headed emotions —are far more likely to get you what you want.

AND others say keep following your heart. You’ll make mistakes and they will hurt, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. Lose touch with your feelings and your intuition and you lose touch with what really matters.

Of course, both are right. When your head is saying one thing and your heart is saying another, it’s not about shutting one down. You need to listen to both, to start an open dialogue, to get curious about both sides.

Head and heart — thought and emotion, analysis and intuition — might not come to a convenient agreement. Did I mention this stuff wasn’t easy? Sometimes decisions are too complex for either your head or your heart to know the answer right now. That’s okay. It’s an ongoing process.

Transformation is creative opposition.

Acknowledging these three fundamental opposites is the first step in no longer swinging constantly from one side to the other: from prioritising Me to Us, and then Us to Me; prioritising Now to Later, and then Later to Now; Head to Heart, and then Heart to Head; and so on and so on. Soon you’ll realise all the other opposites in your life that you’re swinging between without resolution.

Embracing opposites is not about settling on a particular balance between two opposing sides. It’s about holding each side simultaneously, listening, getting curious, having an ongoing conversation.

So, instead of trying to find the best work-life balance possible, try to embrace the fact there is no perfect balance. The pressures and accomplishments of work will always compete with the demands and joys of life. Embracing the opposites of work and play opens up opportunities for work-life integration — creative ways in which work can be more playful and leisure more fulfilling.

The uncertainty and messiness of embracing opposites is worth it for the creative transformation it affords. Since I gave up trying to dominate suffering, eradicating it as much as possible from my life, I’ve come to see it in a new light. I can now see how happiness and suffering exist in creative opposition to each other. The things that make me happy (success, love) also have the power to make me sad (failure, loss), and vice versa. Somewhat paradoxically, relaxing into these opposites has actually made me much happier, more flexible, spontaneous, and relaxed.

I’ve slowly learnt to trust in opposites. When things in my life are in opposition with each other, that’s when new, interesting things start to happen. It’s a kind of music —different voices gradually moving in and out of harmony, creating uniquely beautiful, emerging patterns.

I encourage you to trust and embrace the opposites in your own life and see where the music takes you. You’ll never say Either/Or again.

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