How to Hold Contradiction with Grace

Holding emotions in tension is essential for our well-being and growth.

We human beings prefer black and white, clear categories, logical experiences. We don’t particularly like gray areas. We struggle to hold contradictions, needing to find the answer. But when we get to the most essential questions, we often find that the answers are not clear. And the more we can sit with the tension and trust in the unfolding, the greater capacity we will have to find happiness and joy right where we are.

Here are some truths I’ve been recently holding in tension myself:

Life is both beautiful and painful. (Glennon Melton Doyle aptly calls this “brutiful.”)

Parenting is both exhausting and energizing.

Each time my daughter hits a new milestone, I feel both gratitude and grief; I’m glad she is growing, and I’m sad that she needs me less.

Each time I write a story and hit the publish button, I feel both excited and terrified.

Each time I drive away from my house and leave my daughter in someone else’s care, I feel both loss and freedom.

Each time I think about expanding our family, the thought feels both impossible and at the same time, essential.

Life is full of contradictions. And so are we. And that is part of what makes our lives beautiful and helps us grow.

One of our great writers F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

When we are able to hold our thoughts and emotions in contradiction and allow the space in our hearts for all our feelings, we are able to honestly face what is and move through it with integrity. When we tell ourselves that we should not feel how we feel, when we try to stifle one set of emotions that we label as “negative” (often this means sadness, anger, grief, fear), we find that we are living as less than whole, and our emotion often comes out in other ways in our bodies and in our lives. As I quickly learned as a grief counselor, the only way to heal our emotions is to go through them and not around.

Sometimes, though, our emotions feel too overwhelming to allow ourselves to feel. Which reminds us that life is not meant to be lived alone. One of the most healing experiences we can have is to sit with another person and share our deepest feelings to someone who can hold, listen, and validate our experience. Someone who gives advice or needs to fix your emotions, or someone who is too overwhelmed with their own emotion, may not be the best person to do this. If you are afraid that your emotions will open a floodgate that can never be stilled, seek out a trusted friend or a therapist who can listen and hold your emotion with you.

My absolute favorite quote about holding uncertainty and questions comes from the poet Rilke: “I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

I love this idea of living the questions, trusting that the answers in our life will unfold with time, that we couldn’t live into them now even if we have them. Another reminder to bring ourselves to this moment, to just live now, aware of what is and trusting that the next moment will unfold without our trying to control it.

I want to add that most likely, we find contradiction and question in our growing edges, places in our lives that challenge us, ways in which we are growing and stretching and learning. These growing places are especially uncomfortable, sometimes even painful, but they are also essential if we want to become more fully who we truly are.

So how do we live the questions? How do we hold our internal contradictions with honesty? Much of it comes from taking a stance of allowing. We allow ourself to feel what we feel, we trust and value our own emotional experience. We don’t deny what we are feeling, and we try not to compare our experience to others. When we do this, we also learn to trust that our current emotional state is impermanent, whether that state is one of ecstasy or one of despair.

Mindfulness is way to approach this allowing of our emotion. Through mindfulness, we bring our awareness to our bodies and our minds, checking in to see what we feel in this moment, to notice what that feeling is like in our bodies. Do our chests feel constricted when we are anxious or angry? Do they feel expansive when we are peaceful or joyful? Is our stomach clenched when we are afraid? Just like we may feel both joy and sorrow in the same moment, so our bodies may be both clenched and expanded, constricted and loose in the same moment. We just notice what emotions are present, what thoughts are present, without judgment, with curiosity and kindness.

When we are able to observe our experiences rather get constantly wrapped up in them as the only truth about our lives, we learn that we find our stability in our broader awareness. Much like the sky holds the weather, the clouds and the sun come and go, but the sky itself remains, unchanged, so our awareness can be like the sky, a solid and grounded container for our experience. We have rainy days, epic thunderstorms, and we have rainbow days, perfectly crystal clear sunny days with a cool breeze. Much like the weather remains outside our ability to control, we can’t control our emotions. They will come and go, ebb and flow. The only thing for sure is that they will change.

But when the essence of who we are is the sky, we know that we can weather and face with strength whatever comes. And this perhaps is one of the most important pieces of holding our life’s truth, contradictions and all, with integrity and honesty. If we trust our resilience, our ability to weather each storm, if we surround ourselves with a community that can support and hold it with us, and we approach ourselves and our experience with compassion, we will find that we can find life in each moment.

And that is the key, isn’t it? To live everything, as Rilke said. Recently, one of my support groups for new moms was lamenting the fact that well-intentioned passerbys see them with their babies and so often say, “Enjoy every moment, it goes so quickly!” What high-pressured advice! No one says, “enjoy every moment of your 9–5 job!” or “enjoy every moment of your relationship with your partner!” We can find moments of joy when we look for them, but we will also have moments of despair and frustration, sometimes simultaneously.

The point is not to enjoy every moment. The point is to show up to every moment. To live our lives, awake to the range of our human experience, grounded in the trust that we can and will weather every storm. May we allow ourselves to feel the fullness of our beautiful, contradictory, complex, grace-filled human lives.

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