Is It the Best of Times?
I’m never sure what I’m in for when the first lines of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” come knockin’ on my noggin.
I don’t know I invited them, but those very lines just did their thing.
Quick refresher: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
One of the things Raj Sisodia mentioned in his talk on a group call a few weeks ago was that, while we’re facing a hot mess of division, gun violence, and polarization here in the US, we’re also living in the safest, wealthiest, most abundant era in human history.
Ever the fan of a good paradox, I found ironic comfort in Raj’s words.
I thought about how strange it was to hold the statistical reality of what he was describing with the visceral experience of disappointment and fear buzzing through my body every time I visited the news.
It was weird.
Both the news and Raj’s words were true. Standing with all of it was itchy.
After several conversations reflecting on the whole mess, including Raj’s statistics, first in another class, then with my Thursday virtual men’s group, and later with Danielle, I finally landed in some clear air.
The nature of paradox is that two disparate things should not be able to occupy the very same space… and yet, there they are.
As I mulled over what Raj had said and thought back to conversations with teachers and mentors, I was reminded that the ability to gracefully (on a good day) hold paradox is an adult function. It takes a level of sophistication, curiosity, maturity, and emotional flexibility to hang with paradox without rushing to vote on which disparate thing gets the mighty yeet.
And so it is that the world is seeing unimaginable advances in health, safety, peace, and prosperity… and going to hell in a bucket.
There’s a part of me that sees the current situation as a hefty, worldwide improv game. “Yes, and…” mashed up with “Fortunately… Unfortunately…”
If we stop and really look at the big picture, isn’t what we’re experiencing now kinda business as usual?
Yeah, there’s plenty of “worst of times” nasty stuff going down. There is tragedy, war, disease, record-topping heat waves, and painful upheaval. There’s no shortage of folks who, on scales large and small, are doing their best to force control on circumstances, people and outcomes – bending what they can to their will. That stuff can work for a few seasons, or even a generation or two, but impermanence eventually finds a way of elbowing its way in, fracturing the illusion of control and the arrogance that reaches for it.
At the same time, Raj’s “best of times” data remains accurate.
Sure, it can be frustratingly challenging to see any light at all whilst one is standing in a storm on a moonless night – yet it’s still there, behind the clouds and on the other side of the world.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting magical, Pollyanna positive thinking and denial.
Rather, I’m suggesting learning to see all of it, to allow it in – light and shadow and everything in between – and learning to hold and appreciate paradox.
That’s not a small ask, and here’s why: Holding paradox is an act of acceptance – and acceptance, as I’ve written often, is not the same as approval, nor is it synonymous with resignation. Acceptance is a rigorous, conscious practice of seeing the world as it truly is.
With apologies to Dickens, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times, wisdom, foolishness, belief, incredulity, light, darkness, hope, despair… It’s all present, right here, right now – as ever.
The job of the leader? The work of the conscious adult?
To meet it all in this moment.
Again, and again, and again.