Paradox comes from the Greek parádoxos, meaning "unbelievable." There are three paradoxes in life with which we must deal on a daily basis: change, choice, control, killing, and freedom.
If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.—Kurt Lewin
The paradox is that change is a Universal constant, a linear spiral in that change is cyclical but can only approximate its beginning, never touch it. Change is a condition along a continuum that may, for an instant, reach a momentary pinnacle of harmony within our senses. Then the process that created the harmony, which in itself is perfect, takes that sense of harmony away and replaces it with something else--always with something else. For all things arise; all things pass away; all things are becoming something else.
In this way, one of Nature's great lessons is revealed if we observe closely and participate consciously in life: knowledge represents our notion of the historical surety of the past; change flows as the ongoing current of the active present; uncertainty is the womb of future possibility.
To understand the relationships among knowledge, change, and uncertainty, we must first understand the relationships of past, present, and future. The past determines the present and the present determines the potentiality of the future; this is the outworking of the law of cause and effect, which is inescapable.
Within this relationship are contained three important notions: (1) Nature deals with processes and trends over variable scales of time, despite the fact that we often want to deal with absolute, predictable quantities and values in rigid, predetermined scales of time; (2) Nature's processes are a cyclical continuum, regardless of our human desire for things to be linear in accord with our predominant thinking; and (3) Nature is always in a dynamic state of becoming something else, which means that although we have some scientific understanding of the principles governing this dynamic balancing act, we can only anticipate the outcome of our tinkering based on our meager knowledge of Nature's biophysical principles.
I was in southern Malaysia in 1995 and was everlastingly impressed by the evenness of the climate. It was hot and hotter, wet and wetter, humid and more humid, but all within a narrow range. Even the annual length of day varied by only about fifteen minutes due to the proximity to the equator.
In Malaysia, unlike the Pacific Northwest of the United States where I live, there is no sudden burst of spring colors in anyone's garden as the profusion of flowers begins to bloom. There is no discrete season for decay, for the dying and falling of leaves, when deciduous plants all bare themselves for the coming of winter. The seasonal variation, to which I am accustomed, does not exist. Malaysia has such climatic sameness that flowers are always blooming and dying, as are leaves. But the Malaysians understand the subtleties of their seasons, which they identified to me by the ripening of certain fruits. So it is that even in Malaysia, where I cannot read the subtleties of change, the dynamics of change exist nonetheless.
Change seems often to force us to balance between extremes of risk and no risk during the course of living. The turtle must accept risk every day just in order to live. It has but two choices, to withdraw its head from the outside world into the safety of its shell and starve to death or risk sticking its head into the world to find food. "Life shrinks or expands," concludes author Anäis Nin, "in proportion to one's courage."
But how many times in life do we retreat in the face of our moderate to excruciating discomfort? How many times do we eschew the opportunity put before us to actually sit in our discomfort, pain, grief, or terror long enough to move through it to the other side, where growth and self-mastery await? Risk rides the crest of a wave of perceived crisis. In this sense, risk is a measure of our faith and trust. It is also a measure of our willingness to consciously grow as individuals.
Understanding change is a matter of consciousness of the effect caused by a thought and subsequent action; the more conscious we are, the more flexible is our thinking. The less conscious we are, the more rigid and immutable is our thinking. Unconsciousness is the lack of understanding of the relationship between a cause and its effect and the lack of discipline to achieve that understanding. In the Hindu Upanishads, we are told, for example, that "one comes to be of just such stuff as that on which the mind is set."
We cannot stop change. We can only respond to it, and by our response, we may, to some extent, be able to alter its trajectory, speed, and outcome--or at least accommodate it. Remember, however, that choice comes from change, and change comes from the ability to choose. The great irony is that most people want choice without change, responsibility, or accountability.
Nevertheless, the wave of uncertainty called the future is coming. We can accept it, flow with it, and seek its opportunities, or we can resist it, fight it, and make ourselves sick, but we cannot stop it because the Universe is always in creation and never finished. Notice that the word "finished" is past tense, and whatever is past tense cannot exist because it is history, that which has already happened, not that which is now happening. So it is that we can only interact with the past, present, and future now, in the present, knowing full well that our every thought, word, and action of this moment either creates or destroys our future health, happiness, and peace.
It is through actively observing and consciously participating in life that we learn we cannot relive history or know in advance what is going to happen because what happens depends on choices made in the present. "Our plans miscarry," wrote Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, "because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind."
All we have is the present, the here and now, with which we must interact. How we interact with the myriad stresses of continual change and why we behave as we do depends on whether we understand change as a fluid process to be embraced or as a terrifying condition to be avoided.
The idea that everything is constantly changing, that nothing is permanent, can be viewed another way: acceptance of what is. What is, is. It cannot be otherwise. I cannot, for example, control a circumstance, but I can control how I respond to it. If I simply accept the circumstance, I am in control of myself; if I fight the circumstance and try to control it, it controls me. Thus, as every great teacher throughout all time has taught: accept everything. Accept the way as it is shown to you. Let life come naturally like the unfolding of a flower.
Change is the creative process that keeps the world ever novel, interesting, and evolving. It is also a messenger of uncertainty and a tester of faith, which caused Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat to remark: "My contemplation of life and human nature . . . taught me that he who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality, and will never, therefore, make any progress." Sadat's concept is carried a step further by French philosopher Henri Bergson: "To exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to create oneself endlessly," which fits well with a Chinese proverb: "If you are going to stand, well stand; if you are going to sit, well sit. But don't wobble."
"Choice" is a simple word with a powerful, coveted meaning. People have appropriated choice from the dawning of humanity because they value it and thus vie for it and often die for it.
Choices create causes that always have effects or consequences, which become the causes of still other effects or consequences, and so on. The paradox is that we have a choice in everything we think and almost everything we do--except choosing, killing, and dying, in which we have no choice. We must choose. In that we have no choice, because not to choose is still a choice. In addition, each choice we make is a new choice, even if that is to do nothing when a circumstance in our life changes, which they are constantly doing.
With respect to choice, Israeli Statesman Abba Eban said, "History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives." According to a bumper sticker, even Noah had a choice, but may not have exhausted all other alternatives: "God is innocent. Noah built in a flood plain."
Choice made with foresight that is based on the collective experience of historical hindsight is the essence of social-environmental sustainability. And, while the immediate choices belong to us, the adults of today, the perpetual consequences of our choices--for better or ill--belong to the children of today and all the tomorrows to come.
The third paradox is that to be in control of circumstances, we must give up trying to control circumstances and learn self-control instead. If we try to control everything in our environment, even the uncontrollable, in an attempt to have what we might think of as predictability and thus perfect order, we are prisoners of the need to control through perfection. By trying to control all things, we become increasingly out of control of ourselves, which means we become not only increasingly out of control of circumstances but also increasingly frustrated, where we could instead find acceptance and joy. The following three stories illustrate this important point.
As Autumn arrives in a distant monastery, a Zen master tells his disciples to sweep the path because it is being covered with falling leaves. The disciples obey as disciples are wont to do and mindfully sweep clean the path of orange and golden leaves. The Zen master comes at eventide and, inspecting the leafless path, tells his disciples to sweep it again the next day because they have not done a perfect job. Again they carefully sweep the path, and again he tells them to do it over because they have failed a second time to do a perfect job.
Finally, after the third try, one of the disciples asks the Zen master what is wrong with their job of sweeping because, he points out, the path is clean of leaves, whereupon the Zen master reaches up and taps a branch. Five leaves float gently onto the path. "Now," he says, "the path is perfect."
There also is a lovely Persian story, which renders a similar lesson. Persian rug weavers of old, although capable of weaving a perfect rug, always inserted a single hidden flaw because to create the perfect rug would be blasphemous since "only Allah is perfect." In this way, they honored their Higher Power and kept their "right size," which is to say that they confirmed their humanity and protected themselves against the neurosis of the obsession of outward control and perfectionism.
Finally, there is the charming story by Shel Silverstein about a circle from which a large, triangular wedge has been cut. The circle, feeling incomplete because it is no longer a circle, goes looking for its missing piece. Being incomplete, however, it could only roll slowly, but it could admire the flowers along the way and chat with butterflies while enjoying the warmth of the sunshine.
The circle did find lots of pieces, but none fit, so it left them all alongside the road and kept searching. Then, one day, it found a piece that fit exactly. It was so happy to be whole again, but as a perfect circle, it rolled too fast to see the flowers, or visit with the butterflies, or even to feel the gentle warmth of the sun. When the circle realized just how different the world seemed in the dizzying pace of rolling smoothly, it stopped, left its once-missing piece by the side of the road, and rolled slowly, bumpily along, once again appreciating life.
The paradox of control is that to be in control of our lives, we must give up trying to control what is outside of ourselves, the things we cannot control no matter how hard we try. "Everything that grows is flexible," said the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. "All enduring strength is flexible." This situation can be likened to that of a swimmer who is intent on crossing a river by swimming against its swift and powerful current. Although the river does not tire in its flowing, the swimmer tires from swimming. Just because the swimmer tires when challenging directly the power of the current does not mean the river is uncrossable. It merely means that the swimmer must choose to go with the current to some degree, letting the flow of the river buoy him or her as he or she swims towards the opposite shore. True, the swimmer will be carried downstream to some extent and will arrive at the river's far shore.
Although it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to maintain our inner harmony and balance, if we are in control of ourselves, we are de facto in control the outer circumstances, even if they are vexing. If we humans were collectively at a level of consciousness sufficient for the exercise of self-control to embrace change as a continual process, choice as a noble responsibility, and self-control and the path to a higher level of consciousness, we would--through self-mastery--treat one another and Nature far better than we do.
It is illegal in the United States to kill a deer without special permission, even one eating its way through my garden because deer are politically important animals with strict rules governing the taking of their lives. They are deemed commercially valuable game animals and are to be killed for sport--provided, of course, one pays a monetary fee for the privilege of doing so.
If, on the other hand, aphids, mites, snails, slugs, pillbugs, weevils, leafhoppers, symphylids, gophers, or ground squirrels are eating my garden, I may kill them with impunity. Why? What is it about the perceived social value of an animal that allows the moral justification of killing one kind with impunity but not another?
It seems to me that it boils down to the perceived potential for economic gain. A carrot, for example, is thought to have a greater potential economic value than a gopher; conversely, a deer is perceived to have a greater potential economic value than a rose bush. But who decides and how?
Although we may express our beliefs in the value of all life, when push comes to shove and our immediate survival seems in danger (spotted owls vs. jobs, salmon vs. water for electricity or irrigation), most of us opt for our own, narrow self-interest--our sense of survival at any cost. What motivates me in gardening is that either I get the vegetables and flowers I plant and nurture or the aphids, mites, snails, slugs, pillbugs, weevils, leafhoppers, and symphylids do. If I'm going to get them, or at least most of them, then I have to control the numbers of my competitors. And that means killing some of them.
Because my competitors are such wee creatures, there are no legal restrictions on killing them, however I choose. But what about moral restrictions?
Though I always tread as softly on the Earth and with Her creatures as I can, I still leave a mark. I can do naught else but leave my imprint simply because I exist, and I use energy in order to live and alter my surroundings in my act of living. My alterations will be simultaneously positive for some things and deleterious for others.
I simply cannot be neutral because I live from the center of my own experience, which is necessarily a subjective act of living itself, an act in which I inadvertently and sometimes consciously choose to kill. Humanity has killed both inadvertently and purposefully since time immemorial. Can it be otherwise? I think not, because the world is a seamless whole, a dynamic living organism, rather than separable fragments that can in any way be isolated one from another.
Because reality is an indivisible whole, killing will occur either inadvertently or by choice. Life and death are opposites of the same dynamic; therefore, the probability is that killing will exist when many beings live in proximity and all want the same thing--to live. Killing, whether inadvertent or by choice, takes many forms: disease; parasitism; predation; cannibalism; starvation; dehydration; or human violence, such as murder, war, suicide, and euthanasia. Each is a participation in the shadowlands of life.
True, killing is killing and some ways are clearly more violent than others. But how is the act of cutting a sheep's throat for a religious purpose any different than that of severing a head of lettuce from its root in order to make a salad? It isn't. The difference is that the sheep is a warm-blooded mammal with demonstrable feelings, which we deem to be closer in likeness to ourselves than a head of lettuce because lettuce is merely a vegetable, which science says has neither feelings nor consciousness, and from which most religions withhold the presence of a soul.
Should I, then, who attempts to see all life as equal and complementary, retreat from eating meat on moral grounds and become a vegetarian? I could, but I would still be killing plants to feed myself. And I would still have to compete with those organisms in my garden that want to eat the same plants I do, which are limited in supply. Even if I plant more vegetables, my competitors will only increase in number and consequently eat more. At some point I must do something to control the numbers of my competitors or I will get little or no food for myself from my own garden. But can I control their numbers with them without killing any of them?
Were I to cease eating in order to avoid killing, either directly or indirectly, I would be responsible for my own death through starvation. One way or another, I must kill.
Despite this conundrum, when I consider and examine each competitor as an individual living being, without judging what I perceive to be its unwanted interaction with me, I discover that it has a marvelous form, function, and adaptability in its own right, which, upon reflection, becomes a creative part of my sense of reality. Even a malaria-carrying mosquito displays a dazzling beauty under a dissecting microscope.
This realization poses for me a moral question. Is there really such a thing as equality amongst all creatures? Equality in what sense? Intelligence? Evolutionary (or social) status? Who decides and how?
I'm not sure that living is a matter of equality. I say this because, with rare exceptions, life thrives on life. The only exceptions I can think of are those bacteria living around hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean floor or deep in the Earth (termed "extremophiles" because of the extreme conditions under which they thrive, such as exceedingly high temperatures and the complete lack of oxygen). These bacteria require no organic material in the form of either living or dead beings to survive. Nevertheless, as long as life needs life to live (with the exception of the "extremophiles"), the organisms that must kill in one way or another to survive will do so, and those that require decomposing tissue for their survival will depend in large measure on the killers to supply it. And in killing, the killers, at least in strength and cleverness (if not in sheer numbers and persistence, such as disease organisms), outmatch their individual prey's ability to survive. In the sense of survival as individuals, therefore, moral equality is not equal in terms of physical attributes.
I must kill or have someone else kill for me in order to live, so whether I kill or someone else does is not the issue. Though I wish there was a way in which I could live without killing, I know of none. At issue, therefore, is not that I kill or cause someone else to but why and how I kill or cause to be kill--my motive, my conscious awareness, and my demeanor.
As long as I must kill to survive, I, who feel myself to be an inseparable part of the flow and ebb in an ever-changing current of the Universe, must neither shun nor repress my feelings of depthless remorse. I must, instead, take them most seriously and share consciously in and be accountable for the suffering I cause in the act of my living on Earth. Since I have no choice but to kill in order to participate in life, I both apologize to and ask the Eternal Mystery to bless those beings whose lives I take directly (be it a weed, a carrot, a slug, or a pillbug) or indirectly (be it a salmon, beef, chicken, or lamb whose flesh I eat).
I therefore consciously kill out of perceived competitive necessity, but as selectively as possible to nourish my body and as humbly as possible to protect the moral quality of my soul.
Freedom, by its own dynamic, dictates that no one can be truly free in a interdependent world because we are always bounded by ever-changing relationships. While each of us may indeed be a whole, we are nonetheless part of a greater whole, which is part of an even greater whole, and so on ad infinitum. In that sense, we are simultaneously whole and only partial. Each of us is therefore a unique individual in terms of our personal history, our perception of the world based on that history, and our universality as an inseparable part of the human family. When we bring into consciousness the duality of our individual perception and our universality, we have an enduring need to express both our separateness from and our union with others, which we reconcile when we look deeply enough into ourselves.
This said, however, a person has both the potential of self-transformation and the commensurate potential to obtain a fuller measure of freedom than, say, a dog or cat. Therefore, the ultimate problem is a lack of understanding what exactly freedom is. Although we tend to think that our sense of freedom is based on external factors, it is instead an inner state of consciousness and is totally dependent on ourselves. Freedom is won in proportion to our truthfulness and the extent to which we align ourselves with the inner law of moral or metaphysical order, which in turn aligns us with the biophysical laws of Creation and the Universe.
With respect to freedom, the human condition is an abiding paradox in that we are each self-aware, on the one hand, and seemingly able to act in accord with our own dictates; but on the other hand, we are seemingly bound by our own character and thus held prisoner by our fears, which crystallize into thoughts, which crystallize into prejudices, which crystallize into habits, which crystallize into actions, which crystallize into consequences. In this sense, we are at all levels of our being both self-organizing and interdependent, a tension that makes it clear that the interaction and integration of this pair of opposites is the indispensable means by which anything creative and constructive can and will happen.
©chris maser 2003. All rights reserved.
© chris maser 2004. All rights reserved.