How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.
To me, being immersed in a good book is like being in beneficial psychotherapy: the most lasting and the most impacting insights are made by the patient/reader, while the primary job of the therapist/author is to provide a platform for these insights to be made. It’s like a story I once heard about a therapist who was being badgered by a patient over several sessions to interpret a recurring dream. Finally, the patient, exasperated, demanded, “Just tell me what the dream means?” And the therapist, after a short pause, answered, “How can I tell you when you haven’t told me yet?”
So it is, while recently reading Learning to Love, The Journals of Thomas Merton, I found myself asking myself what about myself is worth asking myself about myself. Tongue-teaser aside, Merton, a Trappist Monk, prolific writer, and one of the 20th Centuries most influential spiritual leaders, in this book, wrestled with several paradoxical situations in his life. His exploration has given me room and intellectual inspiration to explore my own struggles with a contrasting internal self. And more, to question why we humans seem to so easily get stuck in “Catch-22” cycles.
As many know, if you describe a situation as a Catch-22, you mean it is an impossible situation because you cannot do one thing until you do another thing, but you cannot do the second thing until you do the first thing. This idiom was coined by American author Joseph Heller in 1961 in his novel of the same name, in which the main character feigns madness in order to avoid dangerous combat missions, but his desire to avoid them is taken to prove his sanity. Basically, it’s a no-win dilemma, similar to “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” For example, you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience unless you have a job.
In Merton’s case, he was grappling with two intertwining conflicts: (1) solitude versus community, and (2) romantic love versus spiritual chastity. These became paradoxical to Merton in the following ways:
- As a Monk, and at times living in Hermitage, his abiding solitude helped to clear his nimble mind and cleanse his soul, allowing him to uncover seismic insights into the human condition, and providing him with the creative conviction to communicate this expertly in poems, essays, articles and books. But by sharing this work with the public, and gaining because of it widespread fame and attention, his solitude was threatened. Without solitude, he couldn’t connect with others in such a profound and meaningful way, but by connecting with others, he lost his solitude.
- In his late 50’s Merton, against the laws of his order, began a clandestine affair with a much younger woman, a nurse he met in a hospital where he had back surgery. Merton fell hard for the woman, and she for him. But he knew their love was transient and “wrong” in many ethical ways. Still, he could not help himself to try and make it work within the limits of his public and private self. He felt that to deny himself, and her, this love, was to deny God’s gift of love to them. But to move ahead and embrace this love, to leave the order and marry this woman, would result in his pulling away from a love focused on God.
Deep stuff, but at its core, in simplistic terms, Merton, like so many of us, felt trapped in his own opposition and engulfed in self-doubt. At one point in his journals, he writes: “It has been a day of struggle and prayer for me – the need for inner freedom, the urgency of constant work, and the difficulty of getting into into solitude after the hospital. In fact there is now a real doubt in my mind about the value of the whole hermit experience as it is here.”
So why go there? Merton could have chosen one side of the argument and be done with it. He could have kept his solitude whole and enjoyed all its riches to himself without ever having this isolation bubble popped or squeezed. And he could have decided not to enter into a relationship with the woman. But in both instances he stayed with the struggle and straddled the proverbial fence.
But maybe, just maybe, Merton’s non-decisiveness was a decision. In fact, perhaps he
was actually doing what was best for him in the long run. By not making a choice, by
sitting with his suffering, diving deeper into the pain, was he striving toward a final
resolve of his issues, a more lasting and meaningful internal peace?
Jason Kurtz, a leading psychoanalyst in New York City, an award-wining playwright, and the author of the memoir Follow The Joy, expounds more on this idea:
“Pain. Our instinct is to avoid it. To steer clear. But this is a mistake. The body and the mind are wise. Everything we feel has a message. A meaning. And the meaning, the message of our pain, physical and mental, is not to stay away. Rather, it’s to look closer.
Because there is wisdom in our pain. It directs our attention to a part of our body that needs adjustment, or strengthening, or healing. It’s our body’s way of insuring that we notice what’s wrong, and the discomfort motivates us to take action to make it better.
It’s the same for emotional pain. It’s our psyche’s way of directing us to focus on something that is not working. It doesn’t mean run away – it means pay attention. This is important! Someone hurt us. Or disappointed us. Or something did not go the way we wished it had. In my practice, it is generally pain that directs someone to make that first call for help. Old coping skills have ceased to work. We have adapted to things that we can no longer tolerate. Or something new happened that disrupted our equilibrium and we don’t know how to exist in this new reality. And so, our pain drives us to figure out what went wrong. It pushes us to grow and heal. And, as such, our pain contains essential life wisdom. We don’t want to avoid the conflict. We don’t want to ignore our pain. Rather, we need to steer into it and understand what it’s trying to tell us.”
In our world today, paradoxes abound. You might even call this year “Catch-2022”, given all the contradictory rules and patterns we follow. For certainly we live during a time of limitless and near-constant connectivity because of the internet and social media, yet we have never been more lonely or more divided as a people. We have so many choices, but we are often paralyzed with indecision by having so many choices. We worry about the climate, yet consume energy excessively. We preach openness and freedom of expression, yet jump to the chance to cancel voices of those expressing an opposing view.
All this conflicting chaos causes pain, but as Jason opines, pain is a message. It is a signal for us, as a society, and as individuals, to change, to break free from these consuming circles, to find certitude and balance and positive direction. But first we must feel this pain. We can’t shy way from what is uncomfortable and upsetting.
We must lean in and get messy and discover the core of why we are here, why we are floundering, why we are in pain. That will take time, and courage, and fortitude . But it is worth it. And I assure you, if we do things right, we will make meaningful insights, and, will be able to tell ourselves, as needed, what it really means.