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Opinion: Paradoxically Yours

by Judith Hinds

My friend Steven has always loved puns and word play. Among many other sillinesses, he can never let the word “paradox” go by without quacking. I am expected to quack back, making … you know…a pair o’ ducks. As a result, I am permanently scarred. I can’t see or hear the word without also hearing quacks. 

It’s been happening a lot lately, because I’ve been thinking about paradoxes quite a bit. Blame it on COVID. After the shutdown started a year ago, fairly quickly we all began to notice what I call the “pandemic paradox”: the more we’ve had to stay apart, the closer we’ve become. We learned to use video communication platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet. Zoom is where I attend church services and wellness classes, meet with my writing group and other small knots of friends, and celebrate special occasions with my family. I can’t hug any of these people, but I can see their unmasked faces and the interiors of their homes. 

The pandemic has reinforced an old familiar paradox, too – one that I learned many years ago: to be healthy and at peace, I need both to be complete and whole in myself, and to have support from others. Or put another way, taking good care of myself means asking for help when I need it. One of our big tasks as humans is to individuate: to grow up, support ourselves, stand on our own two feet, develop our inner resources for courage and equanimity. The other task is to recognize our interconnectedness, to develop our capacity for compassion and find ways to contribute to the well-being of others. 

Our big-brained species is the only one we know of so far with the potential to feed and care for billions of its members, as well as the potential to destroy ourselves and our planet. During the same year that saw some of us hoard toilet paper and refuse to wear masks, many charities reported record levels of giving — especially food banks and homeless shelters. To my way of seeing, these opposite behaviors indicate who’s working on their human tasks and who isn’t.

Many of the problems we face appear too huge for one person to do anything about them. I am an ant, a speck on a larger speck among numberless other specks. How can it possibly matter what I do? Evidence is everywhere that it does matter. Each donation to those food banks and homeless shelters came from one ant, more like me than unlike. Science and religion abound with teachings about individual actions having an impact, from feeding the multitude with a handful of bread and fish (Christian Bible) to creating a storm by the movement of a single butterfly’s wings (chaos theory). I am too small to matter, yet I do matter. 

We humans take ourselves much too seriously, and not seriously enough. Each of us is in our little egocentric bubble, wanting things, complaining about things. From the time we are toddlers learning to share, we have to get it through our heads that it’s not “all about me.” However, when it comes to creating our life’s work and healing our wounded selves, no one else can do that for us — so it has to be “all about me.” 

Niels Bohr called all this paradoxical stuff “complementarity,” and made it a central principle of physics. One of his successors in the physics world, Frank Wilczek, recently said on NPR, “You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.” (“On Being,” 1/10/21.) The example he gave is that light is both a particle and a wave. It used to be generally accepted that this was impossible.

It’s all rather absurd. We have to laugh at ourselves. Levity helps when something seems too serious to make fun of it. Is that a paradox? Quack, quack.

Judith Hinds lives and writes in East Montpelier, but can sometimes be found conversing with the flock in the North Branch.