I suffer from what psychologytoday.com calls ‘polarized thinking’ (self-diagnosed). This is a way of seeing the world in ‘either/or’ terms. When I judge something — which happens, let’s face it, all the time — it’s either this or that, good or bad, right or wrong. It’s not some of this and some of that — and certainly not all of both. Though it often means being hard on myself and others, thinking in a polarized way helps me simplify the more complex aspects of the world, while staying comfortably seated in my judge’s chambers.

For example: if I hit a green light on the drive home, well, that is a good light. If I hit a red one, then son of a — that is a bad light, and I’m wary of it the next time I’m out. Similarly, just this morning, I discovered that Baby Driver won’t be in theaters till next week, though I had big plans to see it tonight. “This universe,” I told my wife, shaking my head, “is conspiring against us.”

Most obviously, polarized thinking reveals my own blindness (Jn 9:40), my inability to see that both good things and bad things happen; and that I, too, do both good things and bad things.

Paradox is not the easiest thing to understand, especially if you’re an either/or thinker. Contradiction, I get: if two things don’t make sense, they probably shouldn’t be true. But paradox means there’s something true in the contradiction, and, despite my proclivity for polarized thinking, and despite what may seem rational, the ‘both/and’ proves central to the world we live in.

The following excerpt comes from Anne Long’s seminal book, Listening. In it, she describes paradox; moreover, Christ crucified is what she calls the “centre point” of its reconciliation:

Often our listening will confront us with seeming contradictions — realities which are equally true yet which feel uncomfortable, unnerving and which shake our longing for consistency. Five minutes ago I was looking at a sun-filled garden bright with daffodils, fresh green buds and singing birds and thinking, ‘God’s in heaven, all’s right with the world’. Then I opened a letter with news of a bad rail accident involving Christian students crossing a railway line. Is God in his heaven since all is manifestly not right with the world? Yet both are realities — the beauty of the morning and the grim accident. If I follow my instinct for life and joy and shut my ears to the pain, I risk becoming triumphalistic. If I become mesmerised by the pain and suffering and block out the joy and hope, I risk becoming cynical or despairing. How can I listen to both, believing that ‘he has the whole world in his hands’?

For me, part of the answer lies in being prepared to hear and live with the discomfort of paradox, which is not the same as contradiction or compromise but an acknowledging as true what feel like opposites—joy and pain, strength and weakness, hope and despair, life and death. Charles Elliot describes paradox as ‘lived truth’. He says, ‘Paradox is the least inadequate vehicle for catching that quality of truth, because it can both hold in tension two opposites and simultaneously point to a resolution of those opposites that includes them but transcends them.’

Not only does paradox exist in the world, but God uses it to his advantage. A friend recently told me that alcoholism saved his life. Which is to say, he had to crash and burn before he could be healed; he had to die before he could be resurrected.

Often our lowest moments can bring us the deepest healing. As John Zahl writes in today’s entry in The Mockingbird Devotional: “it is the unexpected events of life that drive us into a deeper relationship with God, one in which we are no longer trying to hold onto the reigns.”

Long continues:

Paradox can make for uncomfortable listening. Intellectually it leaves me helpless and longing for certainty — I felt it again recently when, over a joyful meal with three Czechoslovakian women, we celebrated their new-found freedom. We laughed, rejoiced, thanked God, wept tears of gratitude. And we looked at photographs of a bloodstained wall where students had been badly beaten, wreaths of flowers laid down in Wenceslas Square, and we talked of the ongoing bitter struggles of their neighbours in Romania. Joy and pain, hope and despair, life and death all in close and uneasy conjunction. No wonder Charles Elliott goes on to say, ‘The mind will never apprehend the truth of paradox’. So how can we learn to listen from the heart?

Jean Vanier describes the experience like this [from The Broken Body]:

Often our experience in life
is of being pulled between two poles:
the poles of ecstasy and pain,
the glory and the cross:

our hearts are lifted up
in the splendour of the cathedral
with the sound of heavenly music,
…the consciousness of centuries
giving glory to the majesty of God.

Our hearts are stricken in pain
before the world of apparent meaningless
suffering,
hunger,
imprisonment,
death…
…people dying without dignity

…Each of us is called to experience both
ecstasy and pain
shunning neither one nor the other,
but entering into that mystery
where one leads to the other,
where misery and mercy embrace
and wholeness rises from brokenness.

Not ‘shunning’ but ‘entering into that mystery’ where, opening ourselves to the seeming contradictions, we experience them coming together in a reconciling ‘embrace’. The centre point of that reconciliation is Jesus. It is as we stand before God, letting our mind descend into our heart, that we can best listen to his world and discover that inner solidarity with others, the fruit of which is compassion and the source of which is Jesus, who has, by his dying for the world, reconciled all things to God.