Contradictions We Live With

We are faced with contradictions on a daily basis; some are generational, some cultural, some familial. When we have believed in one way of acting and then are faced with new medical or scientific findings or a deeper understanding and recognize that the opposite way is better, we must make a decision whether to discard the old and embrace the new, or not to pay attention to the new options.
Two books I read recently not only increased my knowledge, but also had an impact on an emotional level: David Brooks’s The Road to Character and Dr. Saul Levine’s Our Emotional Footprint. Both of these books made me re-think my values. I am of the generation that wanted my children to succeed in their life’s aspirations, to have self-esteem, and to believe that there is nothing they cannot do if they try hard enough. I never thought of teaching character. What hit me in David Brooks’s book is the difference he notes between the culture of my parents’ generation that encouraged humility and today’s generation that is encouraged to see themselves as the center of the universe. There is a moral shift from building one’s character to wishing for fame and fortune.
I remember admonishing women in the seventies and eighties to not diminish their accomplishments by saying: “I was just lucky” and instead responding with: “Thank you, I worked hard for this.” As a feminist in the 1970s, I wrote the book Paths to Power: A Woman’s Guide from First Job to Top Executive. I empowered women to avoid just working behind the scenes, not taking credit, not speaking up, not being up front. This remains an issue for many women today. So where is that fine line between pushing for recognition and visibility in the work force and modesty of character with the price of remaining unknown and not being privy to opportunity for advancement?
Another contradiction I face is that although I believe in empowering people, I have trouble accepting help from others. I have always felt that asking for help and receiving it spelled weakness or dependence, but it is actually a sign of caring and love and allows another to feel good about lending a helping hand.
We have all been told to de-clutter. I have tried to do so many times unsuccessfully. In a column “Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter” (New York Times, 5/29/15) Dominique Browning wrote about not feeling guilty about having too much stuff in one’s home. She states that it is okay to love one’s things because they promote memories and smiles. So I can stop hoping to become a minimalist in my old age and enjoy all the objects that surround me. My daughter will have to deal with it all when I die. She told me not to worry; she’ll just throw everything out–somehow that doesn’t quite work for me.
I am connected to my smartphone. Whenever I need some information, whether it be simply checking on a word’s spelling or looking up facts, I am glad to have this resource at my fingertips. Yet there is worry that by delegating our cognitive functions to our smartphones, our neural pathways will atrophy. According to Steve Almont, author of Against Football, our brains don’t function like computers, but rather like muscles which, if not used, will get out of shape. I don’t dispute that our hippocampus, if not memorizing on a regular basis, will become more forgetful (as it seems to be doing). However, I believe that as one part of our brain function is relinquished to a machine, another part of our brain grows synapses we are not even aware of as yet because we learn a totally new way to access information and retrieve it. The plasticity of our brains will propel us into a new age of intelligence. We are still forever evolving and are not yet who we can be.
Some people worry how others view them, seeking approval. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said “What other people think of me is none of my business.” On the other hand, in her book Daring Greatly, Irene Brown writes that when we don’t care what others think about us, we lose our ability to connect. So how do we reconcile our need to be accepted and well thought of by others (a primal need as social animals) with independence of mind?
Most people are annoyed by habitual complainers. I try to never complain about my aches and pains, thinking of it as a negative behavior. However, the opposite may be true; Michel de Montaigne, a 16th century philosopher, wrote that complaining to friends about one’s infirmities is the best medicine: It makes the disease evaporate.
One of the most glaring contradictions is between Hinduism’s ultimate achievement of spiritual contemplation and today’s youth-centered culture of striving for achievement. Zen Buddhism talks of the emptiness of striving, yet striving is the hallmark of our society.
In the end, all we can do is examine the contradictions in our lives and make decisions based on our conscious awareness of the possible consequences.
I would like to end this column with the lyrics of a song by Nat King Cole, Nature Boy: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” That is one thought that is devoid of any contradiction.

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