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conflicts and contradictions

April 15, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking really hard about 3 different topics that somewhat overlap. I’ve been trying to reconcile the contradictions between them — trying to find some way that they can all coexist harmoniously inside my mind and body. This afternoon I realized that harmony probably isn’t possible. But also that harmony was probably the wrong goal.

From what I understand, ‘cognitive dissonance’ is psychologically taxing because (1) either you don’t realize that your ideas conflict, because they are never juxtaposed with each other (compartmentalizing); or (2) you do realize that your ideas conflict, but you conceal that knowledge from yourself (suppression).

I’m not sure if ‘cognitive dissonance’ is quite the term to use for myself, then, because not only am I fully aware that my ideas are (apparently irreconcilably) in conflict, but I actually find that fact energizing because it encourages me to fully explore nuances in any of these ideas. I expect some of these nuances will provide fertile new ground for more ideas that I can incorporate into my personal philosophy.

I’m one of those people who can listen to a bunch of people arguing vociferously, find out the particulars of each person’s position, and agree that all of their positions have merit. This facility often landed me in the circumstance of trying to mediate between family members; later, coworkers.

I didn’t realize then why those situations tended to end similarly and disastrously — everyone came together in their anger at me. I now see that I wasn’t actually trying to ‘resolve’ the conflict in the usual sense of the term; I was trying to figure out how everyone’s concerns could be heard, and honored. But I didn’t take sides, so I wasn’t trying to persuade everyone to agree that Person X was correct, and everyone else was incorrect.

I just don’t believe that there is One Correct Answer — for anything. Despite similarities, every individual life is different: no family is exactly the same as any other family. Each neighborhood or habitat is different from every other. Neighbors themselves differ, as do friends and allies that might (or might not) have been available to you. The choices everyone makes are not exactly the same, because circumstances are always different.

I sum this all up as: Everything is local and Context matters.

Even when I was a little girl, thinking of myself as a devout Catholic, I was not a monotheist but a henotheist, which means that I accepted that other gods existed. Yahweh talks about other gods in Genesis; and why the Commandment to ‘have no other gods before me’ if there were no other gods? I read a lot of mythology as a child, and I liked how different patterns of behavior and interests were parceled out to various deities and other beings. That made infinitely more sense to me than the idea that there was one God for not just all 5 billion human beings of thousands of different cultures, past, present, and future — but all birds, all trees, all rocks, all celestial bodies, all bacteria.

It’s a small step from realizing that there are many gods, to wondering why I am worshiping the one that my parents do, even though I don’t really like him, or his values. And then realizing I can choose to honor different gods.

So I’ve probably been a polytheist all along, but all of those words – polytheist, henotheist, monotheist, even atheist – give the impression that gods are of paramount importance in describing a person’s life. That isn’t true for me. Sometimes I share my life with gods, or other beings; many times I do not. Sometimes I wonder if there even are any gods outside of my own head. Going through a period like that does not change how I live my life.

But there is at least one idea that I have been devoted to all my life. When this idea is not part of the environment I’m living in, I’m miserable, if not despairing. This idea is pluralism, but I might also call it cultural and ethnic/racial diversity, or heterogeneity, or a mixing zone. Basically it is a place where a bunch of people from different places with wildly varying ideas about all sorts of things live in the same place. Ideas bump into each other, and people experiment with ideas from cultures that are not their own. In time their neighborhood (or at least the city it is nested within) may develop a vibrant culture of its own.

When I’m feeling homesick for Chicagoland, I think of food: celery salt on hot dogs; pierogies; cheese blintzes and kugelis; deep dish pizza; watermelon with seeds; sweet cornbread; cucumbers and tomatoes freshly picked from my grandmother’s garden; apple fritters; gyros, especially the tzatziki sauce; my aunt Eileen’s kolaches; wedding receptions with mostaccioli and roast beef; Lithuanian black bread with butter.

I haven’t been to Albuquerque in almost 30 years, but when I used to go, visiting family, the two high points for me were always visiting the Sandias, and eating sopaipillas with honey.

One year, when Spouse and I visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I happened to buy a jar of local blackberry honey. The flavor was so intense and intoxicating, eating it was more like drinking wine. It was so delicious I don’t even have words for it. Every time we went to the Smokies after that, I tried to find that honey but they never had it. Then I started seeking out blackberry honey made other places, and while it is tasty, it is nothing like that first sublime jar.

I love my father-in-law’s biscuits, and blackberry cobbler.

I’ve eaten dandelion greens salad in Italy; orange marmalade in England; the most amazing fish and seafood soup in Iceland. The two best bowls I’ve eaten of cream of mushroom soup were in the former Yugoslavia and northern Minnesota; the best bowl of New England clam chowder I’ve ever eaten was in Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

I’ve enjoyed foods made with ingredients I don’t eat anymore, like pork or squid.

All of these things don’t really go together. There is not one over-arching principle that explains my enjoyment of all of them. I don’t think there needs to be.

I have often contemplated my work history, trying to figure out how to fit it into a coherent narrative, how to fashion a ‘career’ out of it. Really, I can’t. There was no plan. There is not one theme. Even when I tried to decide upon one direction and then go in it, things did not ever work out that way. So it’s very hodge-podge, very crazy-quilt-like. It suits me though. I’ve had all sorts of singular experiences. And if I were a person who wanted to ‘settle down’, I probably could have parlayed at least one of those experiences into a ‘career path’. But I liked the freedom of working with wherever I was at. Of course sometimes the circumstances I was in didn’t really suggest any place to go next. Especially if I wasn’t very good at the job itself. But those are worthwhile experiences too. If my whole life was just a series of successes, how much of any use could I really have learned? (Rhetorical, obviously.) Since my life was, instead, a series of setbacks, disappointments, and occasional outright failures, along with a few successes, I’ve learned a whole lot that I would have not learned otherwise. And then I went on to do something new. Because I did have sort of a guiding principle, and that was to experience as many different things as I could. That is not a ‘career plan’ that impresses any but the most unconventional and adventurous of people. I’ve never found any way to do it justice on a resume — but I suppose the sorts of employers that would actually appreciate it are also the kind who wouldn’t ask for a resume. And I’ve never met any employers like that.

I can’t be the only person who comfortably fits into a bunch of categories that don’t get along, holds mutually contradictory ideas that create something marvelous.

I had a dream this morning that suggested that there are places where I could make a contribution where I could use my strengths, I could get (at least some of) the intellectual and social nourishment I need, and what I am able to do would be appreciated … but my dream did not suggest where to look. Another puzzle to tackle.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sixwing permalink
    April 16, 2012 16:50

    I went monotheist->henotheist->sorta-animist, myself, and it’s always reassuring to see that I’m far from the only one.

    Does anyone’s life make a neat narrative, with no out-of-character actions or plot holes? If so, I’d rather like to meet them (but I suspect we’d not get along).

    • April 16, 2012 17:05

      Perhaps you’re right.

      If I met that mythical person, I don’t think I’d get along with them either. 🙂

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