Holding The Tension Of Opposites: why the way to solve our problems often isn't what we expect.
Updated: Feb 17
“…all the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble…They can never be solved, but only outgrown.” – C. G. Jung
There are moments in our lives where we find that circumstances have brought some unresolved dynamic within us into critical focus. Perhaps we are having to decide whether or not to change jobs, pursue a new relationship, move house, or make decisions around care for an elderly relative. We can experience ourselves as polarized at these times, caught between opposing choices with no real idea of how to proceed. Once we have become hooked by the dilemma and the internal conflict that lies at the heart of it has been reactivated within us, the inherent tension can be hard to endure.
What we often fail to appreciate is that the tension we encounter in this kind decision making is, in essence, a creative force - one that has the potential to bring renewal into our lives. More than that, this tension of the opposites, as Jung called it, is in fact a necessary pre-condition for real transformation to occur. It's how we grow. If we are able to hold the tension, rather than rushing to choose one option or the other, there is the potential for something new to emerge. This third possibility could be an idea, an image, a feeling, a fresh way of understanding the world, or a new way of inhabiting it. Its arrival on the scene resolves our dilemma in a way that transcends the need to choose one side over another.
The failure to engage with the tension of opposites in a way that leads to creative outcomes has big implications in the wider world. In the era in which we currently find ourselves it’s easy to observe how, as the future of the world appears increasingly uncertain and less secure, people have a tendency to become more divided in their thinking around all kinds of issues: religion, politics, national borders and identity, personal opinions even…all of these have become fertile ground for the rise of fundamentalism. As the sense of uncertainty grows in people, so does the tendency to seek the security of black and white ideas. Increasingly, it seems we don’t have the stomach for occupying the spaces in between which, in reality, contain many different shades of grey.
“Short-term thinking always tries to avoid the genuine need to suffer the opposites long enough for a third way to emerge.” – Michael Meade The problem is that genuine solutions only appear where we are willing to risk some dissolution. We find the tension uncomfortable, the lack of steady or familiar ground unsettling. In our eagerness to be at ease with ourselves again, we are tempted to choose one side of a dilemma prematurely. There can be relief in extricating ourselves from the feeling of internal conflict but, in bringing the debate to a conclusion too soon, we miss out on a greater opportunity. Rather than having brought about a genuine resolution, we find the issue merely reappears in another form further down the road, or it manifests again at a deeper level of life.
It’s likely that the methods of problem solving we were taught as we were growing up – grounded as they were in the world of right and wrong – will not have adequately prepared us for the deeper questions we all face in life. As children, we required clarity; we had to pick one side of a dilemma over another or else risk feeling torn apart. As mature individuals, we need to develop the ability to allow an issue to grow in complexity and tension inside us long enough for the possibility of a previously unknown or unseen solution to appear. If no one has ever taught or modelled this for us, then we are prone to making choices (sometimes any choice) rather than stay for very long where things feel muddied, cloudy and uncomfortable.
Part of the ground of holding the tension of the opposites may be to release the feeling that only a total resolution will do. This, in effect, is another form of polarization, of ‘all or nothing’ thinking. There may be several partial resolutions of a situation along the way before we arrive at an outcome that feels truly satisfying. Underlying the tension brought out in us by the need to make a decision there can be a fear of staying very long in unknown territory. It might be that what is required is to let go of our aversion to uncertainty. For a third way to emerge, we may need to be willing to allow our ideas about how the outcome should look to dissolve, and to recover our ability to be surprised.
“The genuine individual must form themselves again and again from the tension generated by life’s most fundamental oppositions.” – Michael Meade.
Whilst the two sides of a dilemma can appear to be irreconcilable opposites, at their heart they are one. In a genuine polarity, one side cannot exist without the other: up and down, happy and sad, male and female…to be in this world is to be part of the realm of opposites. Eventually, rather than feeling compelled to make a choice, we learn to stand in a place of equilibrium where we are able to include both points of view in our understanding. In doing so, we broaden our container; we expand our sense both of ourselves and of what is possible for us. This kind of unexpected resolution gives us the opportunity to experience the underlying unity of life. With it comes fresh courage and a greater energy for living, and a reminder that we are all part of something bigger.
(With gratitude to Michael Meade, whose podcast on this subject was the starting point for this post.)
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