Polarities and paradox

Western culture tends to oversimplify complex experiences in dualistic terms.

good & bad;
light & dark;
left & right;
part & whole;
negative &positive;
masculine & feminine;
interior & exterior;
introverted & extroverted;
individual & collective;
stability & change;
competition & collaboration;
objective & subjective;

While this way of thinking has its uses, it can make us think we have to choose up sides — valuing one polarity over another.

But is this how it has to be? Do we really need to choose up sides? Or is there another way?

In this article, we examine historical perspectives on the value of embracing polarities. We also explore why developing a capacity to integrate polarities and not choose up sides is vital for embracing the wholeness of our lives and addressing the great global challenges of our day.

The value of embracing polarities and paradox

In Chinese philosophy, the yin yang symbol is the symbol of embracing polarities. It describes how opposites can be complementary, interconnected and interdependent. The philosophy suggests opposites may give rise to each other, that they are two sides of the same thing.

There is a similar concept in Roman philosophy called Janusian Thinking, named after the Roman god with two faces looking in opposite directions. This philosophy suggests we can create new, novel ideas by imagining two opposites, paradoxical or contradictory ideas. Rather than thinking in either/or terms, thinking in both/and.

Nowadays, in western culture, we are seeing a resurgence of these ancient philosophies, particularly in leadership courses, design thinking workshops and in meta theories such as integral theory.

The role of the ego

Developmental researcher Susanne Cook-Greuter has found as our ego develops, so does our ability to make sense of and embrace different paradoxical distinctions.

At early stages of ego development, we tend to polarise our experiences, choosing one of the two poles and not valuing the other. For example, “raising a family is pleasant” or “raising a family is a struggle”.

As our ego develops, our capacity for acknowledging the tensions between opposites improves, for example “I feel hurt, but learn”. This enables us to ‘juggle’ and ‘balance’ the either, or aspects of our experience of polarities, e.g raising a family “is a juggling act with balancing your work and personal life”

At even later stages of ego development, we start to notice that polarities are two sides of the same thing. That one pole couldn’t exist without the other. This opens us up to the possibility of embracing polarities and paradox in ‘both, and’ terms — as a single whole.

The result is that as the ego develops, so does our ability to make sense of and embrace the wholeness of our lived experience. Each stage of development opens up the possibility for new insights and richer meaning making about our experiences and the challenges we face.

Why embracing polarities and paradox matters

“Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole.” — Margaret Wheatley

We live in a complex world facing an increasing range of global challenges. The more we can see and value the wholeness of our experiences, and appreciate the wholeness of the experiences of others, the more creative and comprehensive we can be in responding to our challenges.

When we polarise, we create blind spots for ourselves and others. We think we are seeing the whole, but this is an illusion created by our ego and the way we are making sense of the polarities.

If we want to work with more of the whole, as today’s global challenges are challenging us to do, we best learn how to come together with others to see and share the wholeness of our experience.

Learning how to identify and integrate polarities within ourselves, in our relationships with others, and in the deeper dynamics at play in whole systems is a necessary capacity for navigating the future in healthy and resilient ways.