by Americ Azevedo
Suppose I say:
"I am lying to you."
If I'm telling the truth, then my statement is false. But wait, if the statement is false then I'm really lying. But if I'm lying, then I'm telling the truth. This is the liar's paradox.
Sometimes I say that life is about finding the "eye of the paradox." What do I mean? The eye of the hurricane is a peaceful calm center surrounded by a violent stormy spiral of winds. A human being is like that -- quiet at the center, but surrounded with conflicting, contradicting, often violent demands of self, family, work, and society at large.
I remember, as a child, that moment before crying, when I wanted to look strong, but the force of emotion would well up with tears. That moment is a balance between two opposing tendencies. Or, consider the hard exterior that some men put out, yet with the right woman they become whimpering needy children. We are strong; we are weak.
Later, in high school, I became a competitive debater. We would debate a topic all year long. One topics was: "Resolved: that nuclear testing be suspended." We learned to debate the two sides of the topic; either the "affirmative" or "negative." With practice I learned to debate each side equally well. In four years, I developed a great respect for the "two sides" of any issue.
As I studied philosophy in college and beyond, I gradually, went past the "two sided" mentality of high school debate; issues really had many, many viewpoints. Perhaps as many viewpoints as there are people (plus dogs and cats). The core work of philosophy is to get beyond any one viewpoint. When we understand the conceptual box we are locked within, we try to go outside it.
If I say a significant number of things about human life, I meet dilemmas -- my statements begin to appear contradictory or inconsistent. Life is indescribable in words. The libraries of the world are walled with romance novels expanding into limitless words the joys and pains of the heart.
Life is gripped by a dramatic conflict between between "what we are" and "what we can be." This is the breeding ground of life's great paradoxes. Love and hate change into each other. Our states of mind slip and flip into each other. Even the most reasonable people continue to find depths within themselves that are logically inconsistent. Is there a view that does not sometimes pit us against ourselves?
William Barrett, a noted existential philosopher, pointed out that even the rational realm of mathematics is not free from paradoxes. This intrigued me. So for twenty-two years I studied Godel's Proof in the field of mathematical logic, which is one of the most important intellectual feats of the Twentieth Century.
Kurt Godel discovered that even a simple axiomatic system such as arithmetic is capable of yielding inconsistent theorems. If this is so of arithmetic, much worse can happen in the realm of morals and ethics. We want logical consistency in life, but life will not yield consistency. We are condemned to guilt and anxiety, just because we cannot "bring it all together" into one consistent system, except through illusions that repress the dark irrational side.
Life is pleasure and pain with many gradations in between. Some say that a life without pain would be without pleasure, that pleasure and pain are two sides of the coin of life. Others note that life and death appear as oppositions, but are actually mutually complimentary. No death without life; no life without death.
Sometimes we attempt to sum up morality by appeal to the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. Something more must always be said as we strive for a false sense of systematic completeness. It becomes like the U.S. Tax Code -- very complex and filled with endless exceptions and exemptions. It's the attorneys that benefit the most, via fees, collected for law suits and court injunctions to make us do what is "right" under some ambiguous system of codes, guidelines, and laws.
The Way of Paradox is also used in the teachings of Lao Tse, Buddha, and Jesus. The Tao Te Ching begins with: "The way that can be spoken is not the Way." Jesus made paradoxical statements in the Sermon on the Mount. Zen Buddhist tradition uses paradoxical statements such as "What's the sound of one hand clapping?" to elicit deeper understanding of reality.
The eye of the paradox, the place of calm being is sometimes called wisdom. What is the position of wisdom? It cannot be any one single consistent viewpoint. Early on, someone explained to me that I need to occasionally be able to see things from "underneath the other's skin" -- even harder than walking in another's shoes. This means even getting past one's own righteous emotions. What an amazing attainment. Wisdom sprouts; we start to eye the paradox.
Did not Charles Dickens write something like, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."? This could describe any age in personal life, in history, or, in the cosmos.
(Submitted to The Sun on June 11, 1997.)